Bridge and tunnel Joe Biden’s splurge on infrastructure moves a step closer
And on the climate and the safety-net, too. Congress works, maybe?
“THE ICEMAN COMETH” is a play about the downtrodden patrons of Harry Hope’s saloon, who exchange reveries for one another’s pipe dreams. For a while President Joe Biden’s aspirations for a gargantuan infrastructure and social-services package—spending $4trn in order to “build back better”—resembled those of a misbegotten Eugene O’Neill character. The weeks dragged on and negotiations appeared fruitless. Yet in the usually soporific month of August, Mr Biden finds that his pipe dream might in fact yield some actual pipes, plus extra sending on the safety net and climate change too.
On August 10th the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure package spanning 2,700 pages, which contains plans to spend $550bn, or 2.5% of GDP, most of it on bridges, roads and railway lines. And then in the early hours of August 11th, the Senate fired the starting gun for the drafting of a budget resolution—a $3.5trn package stuffed with all of Mr Biden’s other partisan aims, the details of which will be negotiated in the months to come.
The White House has made greater headway than many expected. Yet turning this into actual spending will require still more effort. To mollify antsy progressives, neither bill is expected to arrive on the president’s desk without the other. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, has pledged as much and is not known for bluffing.
So success for Mr Biden continues to depend on an odd-couple strategy: yoking the bipartisan bits of his agenda (traditional spending on roads, bridges, broadband and waterways, largely unmatched by tax increases) to the purely Democratic wish-list (enormous spending on climate-change mitigation and a safety-net expansion, along with much higher taxes on wealthy people and corporations). This approach withstood early defections by Republicans who feared they had been had. Now it must prove itself capable of delivering the remaining legislation, which will be mostly an exercise in Democratic cohesion. If all this works, it will probably become the defining accomplishment of the Biden presidency.
Securing both bills will be hard. To pass their other policy aspirations without any Republican votes, Democrats will now employ a procedure known as budgetary reconciliation, which sidesteps a filibuster if certain conditions are met. Shepherding such a package through Congress requires co-ordinating efforts from a score of committees. That task can now begin: in the early hours of August 11th Democrats passed a budget resolution, a skeletal framing document that gives each committee instructions on how much it can spend. This marks the true start of the hard work: drafting legislative text, collating it into one mega-package and passing it without any Democratic defections—for anything less, in the face of unified Republican opposition, would spell defeat.
Reconciliation is not pretty. Since its use is limited to budgetary matters, it cannot be resorted to often. And since Democrats fear that they will lose their slim majorities in the coming mid-term elections, they have an incentive to hitch any partisan priority that they want to become law onto this omnibus bill.
This bill will be stuffed therefore. Committees will draw up plans to spend hundreds of billions on climate-change research, electric-vehicle charging stations and a Civilian Climate Corps; more than $1trn on various safety-net enhancements like extended child-tax credits, subsidised child care and family leave; and educational benefits from pre-kindergarten to community college. There will be a parallel effort to pay for this by raising the taxes on corporate profits, especially of the overseas variety, and high personal incomes.
These legislative schemes would almost certainly increase American deficits and debts beyond their already eye-popping levels. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a non-partisan scorekeeper, estimates that America will run a $3trn deficit in Mr Biden’s first year—much of that is the result of the $1.9trn stimulus measure that the president signed into law soon after assuming office. At 13.4% of GDP, the deficit will be the highest in the first year of any modern president (see chart).
The proposed spending on infrastructure and the safety-net would be spread over ten years, not concentrated in just one. Still, it is remarkable that, if Mr Biden gets his way, he could sign legislation authorising the spending of just under $6trn, almost 30% of GDP, in his first year in office. More of the infrastructure spending will be covered by revenue than was the case for the covid-19 relief measure, but a substantial portion will not be.
The CBO‘s assessment of the bipartisan package passed by the Senate found that it would add $256bn to the federal debt. The budget resolution recently passed by Democrats would allow $1.75trn to be added to the tab—suggesting that only half of their proposal could be paid for (and belying the White House’s repeated insistence that it would be fully funded). Already, Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, warns that the debt ceiling will need to be raised by October 1st to accommodate the current pace of spending.
Almost none of the legislating over the next few months will appeal to Republicans. But that is the point of the segmentation strategy that Mr Biden has chosen. He has pulled off a surprising victory in the bipartisan campaign. The partisan battle promises to be every bit as arduous. ■
For more coverage of Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Function in Washington”
Floods swept Germany, fires ravaged the American West and another heat wave loomed, driving home the reality that the world’s richest nations remain unprepared for the intensifying consequences of climate change.
July 17, 2021
Some of Europe’s richest countries lay in disarray this weekend, as raging rivers burst through their banks in Germany and Belgium, submerging towns, slamming parked cars against trees and leaving Europeans shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction.
Only days before in the Northwestern United States, a region famed for its cool, foggy weather, hundreds had died of heat. In Canada, wildfire had burned a village off the map. Moscow reeled from record temperatures. And this weekend the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for yet another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the American West.
The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it. The week’s events have now ravaged some of the world’s wealthiest nations, whose affluence has been enabled by more than a century of burning coal, oil and gas — activities that pumped the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that are warming the world.
“I say this as a German: The idea that you could possibly die from weather is completely alien,” said Friederike Otto, a physicist at Oxford University who studies the links between extreme weather and climate change. “There’s not even a realization that adaptation is something we have to do right now. We have to save people’s lives.”
The floods in Europe have killed at least 165 people, most of them in Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy. Across Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, hundreds have been reported as missing, which suggests the death toll could rise. Questions are now being raised about whether the authorities adequately warned the public about risks.
The bigger question is whether the mounting disasters in the developed world will have a bearing on what the world’s most influential countries and companies will do to reduce their own emissions of planet-warming gases. They come a few months ahead of United Nations-led climate negotiations in Glasgow in November, effectively a moment of reckoning for whether the nations of the world will be able to agree on ways to rein in emissions enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.
Disasters magnified by global warming have left a long trail of death and loss across much of the developing world, after all, wiping out crops in Bangladesh, leveling villages in Honduras, and threatening the very existence of small island nations. Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in the run-up to climate talks in 2013, which prompted developing-country representatives to press for funding to deal with loss and damage they face over time for climate induced disasters that they weren’t responsible for. That was rejected by richer countries, including the United States and Europe.
“Extreme weather events in developing countries often cause great death and destruction — but these are seen as our responsibility, not something made worse by more than a hundred years of greenhouse gases emitted by industrialized countries,” said Ulka Kelkar, climate director at the India office of the World Resources Institute. These intensifying disasters now striking richer countries, she said, show that developing countries seeking the world’s help to fight climate change “have not been crying wolf.”
Indeed, even since the 2015 Paris Agreement was negotiated with the goal of averting the worst effects of climate change, global emissions have kept increasing. China is the world’s biggest emitter today. Emissions have been steadily declining in both the United States and Europe, but not at the pace required to limit global temperature rise.
A reminder of the shared costs came from Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, an island nation at acute risk from sea level rise.
“While not all are affected equally, this tragic event is a reminder that, in the climate emergency, no one is safe, whether they live on a small island nation like mine or a developed Western European state,” Mr. Nasheed said in a statement on behalf of a group of countries that call themselves the Climate Vulnerable Forum.
The ferocity of these disasters is as notable as their timing, coming ahead of the global talks in Glasgow to try to reach agreement on fighting climate change. The world has a poor track record on cooperation so far, and, this month, new diplomatic tensions emerged.
Among major economies, the European Commission last week introduced the most ambitious road map for change. It proposed laws to ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2035, require most industries to pay for the emissions they produce, and most significantly, impose a tax on imports from countries with less stringent climate policies.
But those proposals are widely expected to meet vigorous objections both from within Europe and from other countries whose businesses could be threatened by the proposed carbon border tax, potentially further complicating the prospects for global cooperation in Glasgow.
The events of this summer come after decades of neglect of science. Climate models have warned of the ruinous impact of rising temperatures. An exhaustive scientific assessment in 2018 warned that a failure to keep the average global temperature from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to the start of the industrial age, could usher in catastrophic results, from the inundation of coastal cities to crop failures in various parts of the world.
The report offered world leaders a practical, albeit narrow path out of chaos. It required the world as a whole to halve emissions by 2030. Since then, however, global emissions have continued rising, so much so that global average temperature has increased by more than 1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880, narrowing the path to keep the increase below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold.
As the average temperature has risen, it has heightened the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in general. In recent years, scientific advances have pinpointed the degree to which climate change is responsible for specific events.
And even though it will take extensive scientific analysis to link climate change to last week’s cataclysmic floods in Europe, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and is already causing heavier rainfall in many storms around the world. There is little doubt that extreme weather events will continue to be more frequent and more intense as a consequence of global warming. A paper published Friday projected a significant increase in slow-moving but intense rainstorms across Europe by the end of this century because of climate change.
“We’ve got to adapt to the change we’ve already baked into the system and also avoid further change by reducing our emissions, by reducing our influence on the climate,” said Richard Betts, a climate scientist at the Met Office in Britain and a professor at the University of Exeter.
That message clearly hasn’t sunk in among policymakers, and perhaps the public as well, particularly in the developed world, which has maintained a sense of invulnerability.
The result is a lack of preparation, even in countries with resources. In the United States, flooding has killed more than 1,000 people since 2010 alone, according to federal data. In the Southwest, heat deaths have spiked in recent years.
Sometimes that is because governments have scrambled to respond to disasters they haven’t experienced before, like the heat wave in Western Canada last month, according to Jean Slick, head of the disaster and emergency management program at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. “You can have a plan, but you don’t know that it will work,” Ms. Slick said.
Other times, it’s because there aren’t political incentives to spend money on adaptation.
“By the time they build new flood infrastructure in their community, they’re probably not going to be in office anymore,” said Samantha Montano, a professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “But they are going to have to justify millions, billions of dollars being spent.”
On this day, Indigenous activists in New England and beyond are observing a National Day of Mourning to mark the theft of land, cultural assault and genocide that followed after the anchoring of the Mayflower on Wampanoag land in 1620 — a genocide that is erased within conventional “Thanksgiving Day” narratives.
The acts of mourning and resistance taking place today build on the energy of Indigenous People’s Day 2020, which was also a day of uprising. On October 11, 2020, also called “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage,” participants around the country took part in actions such as de-monumenting — the toppling of statues of individuals dedicated to racial nation-building.
In response to Indigenous-led efforts that demanded land back and the toppling of statues, Catholic Church leaders in Oregon and California deemed it necessary to perform exorcisms, thereby casting Indigenous protest as demonic.
The toppled statues included President Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt and Father Junípero Serra, who founded California’s mission system (1769-1834) and was canonized into sainthood by the Catholic Church and Pope Francis in 2015.
What do these leaders whose statues were toppled have in common? They perpetrated and promoted devastating violence against Native peoples.
Abraham Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution in United States history when 38 Dakota were hanged in 1862 after being found guilty for their involvement in what is known as the “Minnesota Uprising.”
Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in 1886 in New York that would have made today’s white supremacists blush when he declared: “I don’t go as far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are…” This was not his only foray in promoting racial genocide.
Junípero Serra is known for having committed cruel punishments against the Indians of California and enslaved them as part of Spain’s genocidal conquest.
Last month, “Land Back” and “Dakota 38” were scrawled on the base of the now-toppled Lincoln statue in Portland, Oregon. The political statements and demands for land return reveal a Native decolonial spirit based in resistance continuing through multiple generations
The “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage” came after months of protests in Portland in support of Black Lives Matter. The resistance enacted in Portland coincides with demands for both abolition (the end of racialized policing and imprisonment) and decolonization (the return of land and regeneration of life outside of colonialism). Both of these notions encompass a multifaceted imagining of life beyond white supremacy.
In San Rafael, California, Native activists gathered at the Spanish mission that had been the site of California Indian enslavement. Activists, who included members of the Coast Miwok of Marin, first poured red paint on the statue of Serra and then pulled it down with ropes, while other protesters held signs that read: “Land Back Now” and “We Stand on Unceded Land – Decolonization means #LandBack.” The statue broke at the ankles, leaving only the feet on the base.
What was even more provocative than the toppling of the statues by Native activists and their accomplices, was the response by the Catholic Church, which not only condemned the actions of the Native activists, but also spiritually chastised them. In both Portland and San Rafael, the reaction by the Church was to perform exorcisms.
The purpose of an exorcism, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is to expel demons or “the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church.”
In other words, Native activism and demands for land back were deemed blasphemous and evil by two archbishops and were determined to require exorcism.
In Portland, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample led 225 members of his congregation to a city park where he prayed a rosary for peace and conducted an exorcism on October 17, six days after the “Indigenous People’s Day of Rage.” Archbishop Sample stated that there was no better time to come together to pray for peace than in the wake of social unrest and on the eve of the elections. His exorcism was a direct response to Indigenous-led efforts that demanded land back.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone held an exorcism on the same day as the one performed in Portland and after the toppling of Saint Junipero Serra’s statue in San Rafael. In his performance of the exorcism, he prayed that God would purify the mission of evil spirits as well as the hearts of those who perpetrated blasphemy. Was he responding to a “demonic possession” or was he exorcising the political motivations of those he did not agree with? Perhaps both, as he also stated that the toppling of the statue was an attack on the Catholic faith that took place on their own property. However, the mission is only Church property because of Native dispossession through conquest and missionization.
The conquest of the Americas by European nations was, as Saint Serra had deemed his own work, a “spiritual conquest.” From the doctrine of discovery to manifest destiny, the possession of Native land was rationalized as divine – from God. Those who threaten colonial possession are attacking the theological rationalization of possession, not their faith.
Demands for land back interfere with the doctrine that enabled Native land to be exorcised from them. Archbishop Cordileone’s exorcism was in the maintenance of property that had been stolen from Indigenous people long ago, and Archbishop Sample’s was in the maintenance of peace and the status quo of Native dispossession.
With a majority-Christian population in the United States and other nations in the Americas, demands for the return of land and decolonization have more to reckon with than racial injustice and white supremacy. Christians must also consider how dominant strains of Christian theology rationalized conquest and its ongoing structures of dispossession. Can a religion, made up of many sects, shift its framework to help end continued Native dispossession and its rationalization? Can we come together to overturn a racialized theological doctrine that functioned through violence and was adopted into a nation’s legal system? Can we imagine life beyond rage and the racialized spiritual possession of stolen land?
The Doctrine of Discovery was the primary international law developed in the 15th and 16th centuries through a series of papal bulls (Catholic decrees) that divided the Americas for white European conquest and authorized the enslavement of non-Christians. In 1823 the Doctrine of Discovery was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. Chief Justice John Marshall declared in his ruling that Indians only held occupancy rights to land — ownership belonged to the European nation that discovered it. This case further legalized the theft of Native lands. It continues to be a foundational principal of U.S. property law and has been cited as recently as 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians) to diminish Native American land rights.
In 2009 the Episcopal Church passed a resolution that repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. It was the first Christian denomination to do so and has since been followed by several other denominations, including the Anglican Church of Canada (2010), the Religious Society of Friends/Quakers (2009 and 2012), the World Council of Churches (2012), the United Methodist Church (2012), the United Church of Christ (2013) and the Mennonite Church (2014).
Decolonization and land return are as possible as repudiating the legal justification of land theft. Social, cultural, governmental and economic systems are constantly changing, but the land remains — in the hands of the dispossessors. When our faith is held above what we know is true — we will prolong doing what is right.
Native peoples are not ancient peoples of the past only remembered on days such as Thanksgiving, just as our mourning is not all that we are. Native peoples are a myriad of things, including activists who demand land back — which is not a demonic request. Our land can be returned, and we can work together to heal and imagine a future beyond white supremacy and dispossession.
I’ve been a fly on the wall when white people didn’t know anyone of color was looking or listening.
I am a Black woman who for most of my life has often been mistaken for white. And I’m here to tell you that for four decades white people have openly, even sometimes proudly, expressed their racism to me, usually with a wink and a smile, all while thinking I’m white too.
The incidents pile up, year after year — at a friend’s wedding, when I met a new roommate, at the grocery store, while riding in a taxi, and during innumerable other events from daily life.
As the nation begins, finally, to focus on the social injustice that takes place across this country — from the South where I grew up to the North where I’ve lived for the past 22 years ― I feel the collective pain. Even as a very fair-skinned Black woman with green eyes and light brown hair, I, too, have experienced racism. But I’ve also been a fly on the wall when white people didn’t know anyone of color was looking or listening.
Imagine taking a car service to Newark airport for a business trip, and the driver, a retired white police officer, tells you and your white boss that were he still a cop, he would pull over the Black driver stopped next to us, just because he is Black. Or the white taxi driver who, during a business trip in the South, freely shares broad generalizations about groups of people, looking to either find a kindred soul or spark a debate with a Northerner — one who he thought was white.
Put yourself in my shoes when you move to Reston, Virginia, temporarily while you wait for your apartment to become available in Alexandria, and your new roommate, a young, white male, one who you thought was kind and warm, warns you to be careful of venturing into Washington, D.C., because every time he goes there he gets “robbed by Black people.”
“Really, every time?” I questioned.
Think how upsetting it would be to join your boyfriend at the time (who also looks all white but is biracial) at his friend’s wedding and one of the guests states he doesn’t want his daughter going to a particular concert because there will “be way too many Black people.”
How do you respond to something like this? How do you respond while at a social gathering where etiquette suggests politely smiling, or at least pretending not to have heard?
There’s the executive who asks, “Is this the ethnic Cheryl?” when I wear my hair curly rather than straight. What about the random stranger in the grocery store who can’t understand the texture of my son’s hair and repeatedly asks questions about my background while putting her hands all over my son’s head.
Imagine the district retail manager who balks at hiring a Black model for a fashion show I’m in charge of planning, despite the store having a diverse customer base. “She is just not right for this crowd, if you know what I mean.” I knew. But she didn’t know — that maybe I’m not right for her crowd, either.
Then there are the many women who, once they realize I’m Black, want me to help them “understand Black people” because they really haven’t had any exposure; as if we are some type of rare species and I’m their spokesmodel.
Some instances I hope are not coming from a place of hate, but rather incorrect assumptions based on too little information and a too-fast glimpse at my face. The medical records that say white instead of Black. The doctor who doesn’t understand why I’m asking questions related to genetic conditions that are more common to particular ethnic groups. The employee file that doesn’t count me as one of their diverse hires. The committee that doesn’t realize they have a person of color represented. The performer who asks why don’t we have any Black people in the audience tonight — while looking directly at me, seated right in front.
And yet, it still hurts.
Whether in my personal or professional life — rather ironic, since I work in the field of philanthropy, diversity, equity and inclusion — this is the type of fear, ignorance and lack of self-awareness that I have witnessed and experienced for over 40 years. I’m 51, and I’m exhausted.
I’m tired of weighing, each time, whether I am going to say something in response to these hateful statements—because I must continue to advocate for what is right — or if I am going to walk away because I’m just too damn tired. Or stay silent, while gaining more insight into what really is on the minds of some when they don’t think a Black person is listening?
But do I really need any more insight? Any more proof of what some will say or do if they think no one’s watching? Does it really matter if I’m living in the South or now in the North? In a city or suburbs? At work or running errands around town? At a social event or on public transportation? When it’s clear from my own experiences and the indifferent attitude toward the suffering of others —spotlighted these last months, but enacted for years, decades, centuries before — that some of those same people don’t even care when the eyes of the world are on them.
Yes, I’m exhausted. But I must act.
When I hear racist comments clearly meant for white ears only, I have to stay, I have to stand, I have to speak up, challenge, identify myself, educate. I must walk with my fair-minded brothers and sisters of every color to call out racism whenever I see it and do my part to make this a more just world.
And I must say, “I’m Black, too.”
Cheryl Green Rosario is working on a memoir about her experiences as a light-skinned Black woman often mistaken for white.
Science has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, as SARS-CoV-2 started spreading around the globe, many researchers pivoted to focus on studying the virus. At the same time, some scientists and science advisors—experts responsible for providing scientific information to policymakers—gained celebrity status as they calmly and cautiously updated the public on the rapidly evolving situation and lent their expertise to help governments make critical decisions, such as those relating to lockdowns and other transmission-slowing measures.
“Academia, in the case of COVID, has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible,” says Chris Tyler, the director of research and policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP).
But the pace at which COVID-related science has been conducted and disseminated during the pandemic has also revealed the challenges associated with translating fast-accumulating evidence for an audience not well versed in the process of science. As research findings are speedily posted to preprint servers, preliminary results have made headlines in major news outlets, sometimes without the appropriate dose of scrutiny.
Some politicians, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have been quick to jump on premature findings, publicly touting the benefits of treatments such as hydroxychloroquine with minimal or no supporting evidence. Others have pointed to the flip-flopping of the current state of knowledge as a sign of scientists’ untrustworthiness or incompetence—as was seen, for example, in the backlash against Anthony Fauci, one of the US government’s top science advisors.
Some comments from world leaders have been even more concerning. “For me, the most shocking thing I saw,” Tyler says, “was Donald Trump suggesting the injection of disinfectant as a way of treating COVID—that was an eye-popping, mind-boggling moment.”
Still, Tyler notes that there are many countries in which the relationship between the scientific community and policymakers during the course of the pandemic has been “pretty impressive.” As an example, he points to Germany, where the government has both enlisted and heeded the advice of scientists across a range of disciplines, including epidemiology, virology, economics, public health, and the humanities.
Researchers will likely be assessing the response to the pandemic for years to come. In the meantime, for scientists interested in getting involved in policymaking, there are lessons to be learned, as well some preliminary insights from the pandemic that may help to improve interactions between scientists and policymakers and thereby pave the way to better evidence-based policy.
Cultural divisions between scientists and policymakers
Even in the absence of a public-health emergency, there are several obstacles to the smooth implementation of scientific advice into policy. One is simply that scientists and policymakers are generally beholden to different incentive systems. “Classically, a scientist wants to understand something for the sake of understanding, because they have a passion toward that topic—so discovery is driven by the value of discovery,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Whereas the policymaker has a much more utilitarian approach. . . . They have to come up with interventions that produce the best outcomes for the most people.”
Scientists and policymakers are operating on considerably different timescales, too. “Normally, research programs take months and years, whereas policy decisions take weeks and months, sometimes days,” Tyler says. “This discrepancy makes it much more difficult to get scientifically generated knowledge into the policymaking process.” Tyler adds that the two groups deal with uncertainty in very different ways: academics are comfortable with it, as measuring uncertainty is part of the scientific process, whereas policymakers tend to view it as something that can cloud what a “right” answer might be.
This cultural mismatch has been particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as scientists work at breakneck speeds, many crucial questions about COVID-19—such as how long immunity to the virus lasts, and how much of a role children play in the spread of infection—remain unresolved, and policy decisions have had to be addressed with limited evidence, with advice changing as new research emerges.
“We have seen the messy side of science, [that] not all studies are equally well-done and that they build over time to contribute to the weight of knowledge,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions.”
Academia has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible. —Chris Tyler, University College London
Widespread mask use, for example, was initially discouraged by many politicians and public health officials due to concerns about a shortage of supplies for healthcare workers and limited data on whether mask use by the general public would help reduce the spread of the virus. At the time, there were few mask-wearing laws outside of East Asia, where such practices were commonplace long before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Gradually, however, as studies began to provide evidence to support the use of face coverings as a means of stemming transmission, scientists and public health officials started to recommend their use. This shift led local, state, and federal officials around the world to implement mandatory mask-wearing rules in certain public spaces. Some politicians, however, used this about-face in advice as a reason to criticize health experts.
“We’re dealing with evidence that is changing very rapidly,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “I think there’s a risk of people perceiving that rapid evolution as science [being] a bad process, which is worrisome.” On the other hand, the spotlight the pandemic has put on scientists provides opportunities to educate the general public and policymakers about the scientific process, Azad adds. It’s important to help them understand that “it’s good that things are changing, because it means we’re paying attention to the new evidence as it comes out.”
Bringing science and policy closer together
Despite these challenges, science and policy experts say that there are both short- and long-term ways to improve the relationship between the two communities and to help policymakers arrive at decisions that are more evidence-based.
Better tools, for one, could help close the gap. Earlier this year, Ruggeri brought together a group of people from a range of disciplines, including medicine, engineering, economics, and policy, to develop the Theoretical, Empirical, Applicable, Replicable, Impact (THEARI) rating system, a five-tiered framework for evaluating the robustness of scientific evidence in the context of policy decisions. The ratings range from “theoretical” (the lowest level, where a scientifically viable idea has been proposed but not tested) to “impact” (the highest level, in which a concept has been successfully tested, replicated, applied, and validated in the real world).
The team developed THEARI partly to establish a “common language” across scientific disciplines, which Ruggeri says would be particularly useful to policymakers evaluating evidence from a field they may know little about. Ruggeri hopes to see the THEARI framework—or something like it—adopted by policymakers and policy advisors, and even by journals and preprint servers. “I don’t necessarily think [THEARI] will be used right away,” he says. “It’d be great if it was, but we . . . [developed] it as kind of a starting point.”
Other approaches to improve the communication between scientists and policymakers may require more resources and time. According to Akerlof, one method could include providing better incentives for both parties to engage with each other—by offering increased funding for academics who take part in this kind of activity, for instance—and boosting opportunities for such interactions to happen.
Akerlof points to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which place scientists and engineers in various branches of the US government for a year, as an example of a way in which important ties between the two communities could be forged. “Many of those scientists either stay in government or continue to work in science policy in other organizations,” Akerlof says. “By understanding the language and culture of both the scientific and policy communities, they are able to bridge between them.”
In Canada, such a program was established in 2018, when the Canadian Science Policy Center and Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, held the country’s first “Science Meets Parliament” event. The 28 scientists in attendance, including Azad, spent two days learning about effective communication and the policymaking process, and interacting with senators and members of parliament. “It was eye opening for me because I didn’t know how parliamentarians really live and work,” Azad says. “We hope it’ll grow and involve more scientists and continue on an annual basis . . . and also happen at the provincial level.”
The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions. —Karen Akerlof, George Mason University
There may also be insights from scientist-policymaker exchanges in other domains that experts can apply to the current pandemic. Maria Carmen Lemos, a social scientist focused on climate policy at the University of Michigan, says that one way to make those interactions more productive is by closing something she calls the “usability gap.”
“The usability gap highlights the fact that one of the reasons that research fails to connect is because [scientists] only pay attention to the [science],” Lemos explains. “We are putting everything out there in papers, in policy briefs, in reports, but rarely do we actually systematically and intentionally try to understand who is on the other side” receiving this information, and what they will do with it.
The way to deal with this usability gap, according to Lemos, is for more scientists to consult the people who actually make, influence, and implement policy changes early on in the scientific process. Lemos and her team, for example, have engaged in this way with city officials, farmers, forest managers, tribal leaders, and others whose decision making would directly benefit from their work. “We help with organization and funding, and we also work with them very closely to produce climate information that is tailored for them, for the problems that they are trying to solve,” she adds.
Azad applied this kind of approach in a study that involves assessing the effects of the pandemic on a cohort of children that her team has been following from infancy, starting in 2010. When she and her colleagues were putting together the proposal for the COVID-19 project this year, they reached out to public health decision makers across the Canadian provinces to find out what information would be most useful. “We have made sure to embed those decision makers in the project from the very beginning to ensure we’re asking the right questions, getting the most useful information, and getting it back to them in a very quick turnaround manner,” Azad says.
There will also likely be lessons to take away from the pandemic in the years to come, notes Noam Obermeister, a PhD student studying science policy at the University of Cambridge. These include insights from scientific advisors about how providing guidance to policymakers during COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic times, and how scientists’ prominent role during the pandemic has affected how they are viewed by the public; efforts to collect this sort of information are already underway.
“I don’t think scientists anticipated that much power and visibility, or that [they] would be in [public] saying science is complicated and uncertain,” Obermeister says. “I think what that does to the authority of science in the public eye is still to be determined.”
Talking Science to PolicymakersFor academics who have never engaged with policymakers, the thought of making contact may be daunting. Researchers with experience of these interactions share their tips for success. 1. Do your homework. Policymakers usually have many different people vying for their time and attention. When you get a meeting, make sure you make the most of it. “Find out which issues related to your research are a priority for the policymaker and which decisions are on the horizon,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. 2. Get to the point, but don’t oversimplify. “I find policymakers tend to know a lot about the topics they work on, and when they don’t, they know what to ask about,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Finding a good balance in the communication goes a long way.” 3. Keep in mind that policymakers’ expertise differs from that of scientists. “Park your ego at the door and treat policymakers and their staff with respect,” Akerlof says. “Recognize that the skills, knowledge, and culture that translate to success in policy may seem very different than those in academia.” 4. Be persistent. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately, or if promising communications don’t pan out,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “Policymakers are busy and their attention shifts rapidly. Meetings get cancelled. It’s not personal. Keep trying.” 5. Remember that not all policymakers are politicians, and vice versa. Politicians are usually elected and are affiliated with a political party, and they may not always be directly involved in creating new policies. This is not the case for the vast majority of policymakers—most are career civil servants whose decisions impact the daily living of constituents, Ruggeri explains.
When historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous thesis on the US frontier in 1893, he described the “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness” it had forged in the American character.
Now, well into the 21st century, researchers led by the University of Cambridge have detected remnants of the pioneer personality in US populations of once inhospitable mountainous territory, particularly in the Midwest.
A team of scientists algorithmically investigated how landscape shapes psychology. They analyzed links between the anonymised results of an online personality test completed by over 3.3 million Americans, and the “topography” of 37,227 US postal—or ZIP—codes.
The researchers found that living at both a higher altitude and an elevation relative to the surrounding region—indicating “hilliness”—is associated with a distinct blend of personality traits that fits with “frontier settlement theory”.
“The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom,” said researcher Friedrich Götz, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.
“Such rugged terrain likely favored those who closely guarded their resources and distrusted strangers, as well as those who engaged in risky explorations to secure food and territory.”
“These traits may have distilled over time into an individualism characterized by toughness and self-reliance that lies at the heart of the American frontier ethos” said Götz, lead author of the study.
“When we look at personality across the whole United States, we find that mountainous residents are more likely to have psychological characteristics indicative of this frontier mentality.”
Götz worked with colleagues from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences, Austria, the University of Texas, US, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and his Cambridge supervisor Dr. Jason Rentfrow. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The research uses the “Big Five” personality model, standard in social psychology, with simple online tests providing high-to-low scores for five fundamental personality traits of millions of Americans.
The mix of characteristics uncovered by study’s authors consists of low levels of “agreeableness”, suggesting mountainous residents are less trusting and forgiving—traits that benefit “territorial, self-focused survival strategies”.
Low levels of “extraversion” reflect the introverted self-reliance required to thrive in secluded areas, and a low level of “conscientiousness” lends itself to rebelliousness and indifference to rules, say researchers.
“Neuroticism” is also lower, suggesting an emotional stability and assertiveness suited to frontier living. However, “openness to experience” is much higher, and the most pronounced personality trait in mountain dwellers.
“Openness is a strong predictor of residential mobility,” said Götz. “A willingness to move your life in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence and personal freedom drove many original North American frontier settlers.”
“Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories.”
The researchers wanted to distinguish between the direct effects of physical environment and the “sociocultural influence” of growing up where frontier values and identities still hold sway.
To do this, they looked at whether mountainous personality patterns applied to people born and raised in these regions that had since moved away.
The findings suggest some “initial enculturation” say researchers, as those who left their early mountain home are still consistently less agreeable, conscientious and extravert, although no such effects were observed for neuroticism and openness.
The scientists also divided the country at the edge of St. Louis—”gateway to the West”—to see if there is a personality difference between those in mountains that made up the historic frontier, such as the Rockies, and eastern ranges e.g. the Appalachians.
While mountains continue to be a “meaningful predictor” of personality type on both sides of this divide, key differences emerged. Those in the east are more agreeable and outgoing, while western ranges are a closer fit for frontier settlement theory.
In fact, the mountainous effect on high levels of “openness to experience” is ten times as strong in residents of the old western frontier as in those of the eastern ranges.
The findings suggest that, while ecological effects are important, it is the lingering sociocultural effects—the stories, attitudes and education—in the former “Wild West” that are most powerful in shaping mountainous personality, according to scientists.
They describe the effect of mountain areas on personality as “small but robust”, but argue that complex psychological phenomena are influenced by many hundreds of factors, so small effects are to be expected.
“Small effects can make a big difference at scale,” said Götz. “An increase of one standard deviation in mountainousness is associated with a change of around 1% in personality.”
“Over hundreds of thousands of people, such an increase would translate into highly consequential political, economic, social and health outcomes.”
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A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of TheNew York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.
This article was updated at 7:35 p.m. ET on December 23, 2019
When The New York Times Magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.
In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.
Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.
Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.
“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”
In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.
Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.
The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”
The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.
This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”
Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.
On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.
Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.
The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.
Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”
Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.
“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”
But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.
“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”
Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.
“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”
This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.
“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”
“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”
Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.
To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”
In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.
Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”
When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.
Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.
“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”
The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.
*An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for historian Manisha Sinha’s book.
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious plans to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums and related instructional material.
We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”
Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.
The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.
We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.
Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University; James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University; James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York; Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University; Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.
Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.
The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.
Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.
The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).
Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.
As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.
The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” is grounded in the historical record.
The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.
It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”
The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.
As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.
The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.
It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.
And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.
This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it — an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the prehistory of the period our project addresses.
Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.
That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.
Sincerely, Jake Silverstein Editor in chief
The 1619 Project was launched in August 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that would become the United States. It consisted of two components: a special issue of the magazine, containing 10 essays exploring the links between contemporary American life and the legacy of slavery, as well as a series of original poetry and fiction about key moments in the last 400 years; and a special broadsheet section, produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This work was converted into supplementary educational materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The materials are available free on the Pulitzer Center’s website, pulitzercenter.org.
A new study suggests that the conflict between science and religion is not universal but instead depends on the historical and cultural context of a given country. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
It is widely believed that religion and science are incompatible, with each belief system involving contradictory understandings of the world. However, as study author Jonathan McPhetres and his team point out, the majority of research on this topic has been conducted in the United States.
“One of my main areas of research is trying to improve trust in science and finding ways to better communicate science. In order to do so, we must begin to understand who is more likely to be skeptical towards science (and why),” McPhetres, an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, told PsyPost.
In addition, “there’s a contradiction between scientific information and many traditional religious teachings; the conflict between science and religion also seems more pronounced in some areas and for some people (conservative/evangelical Christians). So, I have partly been motivated to see exactly how true this intuition is.”
First, nine initial studies that involved a total of 2,160 Americans found that subjects who scored higher in religiosity showed more negative implicit and explicit attitudes about science. Those high in religiosity also showed less interest in science-related activities and a decreased interest in reading or learning about science.
“It’s important to understand that these results don’t show that religious people hate or dislike science. Instead, they are simply less interested when compared to a person who is less religious,” McPhetres said.
Next, the researchers analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WEVs) involving 66,438 subjects from 60 different countries. This time, when examining the relationship between religious belief and interest in science, correlations were less obvious. While on average, the two concepts were negatively correlated, the strength of the relationship was small and varied by country.
Finally, the researchers collected additional data from 1,048 subjects from five countries: Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Here, the relationship between religiosity and attitudes about science was, again, small. Furthermore, greater religiosity was actually related to greater interest in science.
Based on these findings from 11 different studies, the authors suggest that the conflict between religion and science, while apparent in the United States, may not generalize to other parts of the world, a conclusion that “severely undermines the hypothesis that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.” Given that the study employed various assessments of belief in science, including implicit attitudes toward science, interest in activities related to science, and choice of science-related topics among a list of other topics, the findings are particularly compelling.
“There are many barriers to science that need not exist. If we are to make our world a better place, we need to understand why some people may reject science and scientists so that we can overcome that skepticism. Everyone can contribute to this goal by talking about science and sharing cool scientific discoveries and information with people every chance you get,” McPhetres said.
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“THIS IS A, I would say, senseless dividing line,” said Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, his voice catching as he talked of the rows that have broken out in his state over the wearing of face-coverings. There are similar spats elsewhere in America, for masks have become the latest aspect of the culture war that has emerged there over how to deal with covid-19. Some shops refuse entry to maskwearers and Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, has rescinded an order requiring people to wear them, saying that he “went too far”.
Elsewhere in the world, by contrast, there is increasing acceptance that mask-wearing is a good thing. On May 5th, for example, the Royal Society, Britain’s top science academy, concluded that masks “could be an important tool for managing community transmission”. This is not so much because they protect the wearer—the normal reason people may put them on in times of pestilence—but rather because they stop the wearer infecting others.
In this context covid-19’s particular peculiarity—that people who test positive for it often do not have symptoms—is important. Research published last month in Nature Medicine, by Xi He of Guangzhou Medical University and Eric Lau of Hong Kong University, suggests that 44% of cases are caused by transmission from people without symptoms at the time of transmission.
Those who do have symptoms should not, of course, be out and about at all. In their case masks are irrelevant. But to break the chain, it behoves even the symptomless to assume that they might be infected. Covid-19 is transmitted, above all, by virus-laden droplets of spit. Experiments show that face-coverings as simple as tea-towels are effective. One study found that a tea-towel worn around the face captured 60% of droplets. At 75%, a surgical mask did better, but not overwhelmingly so.
Governments are beginning to take this on board. As part of the loosening their lockdown, the Dutch are required to wear face-coverings on public transport—but not ones of medical grade, which should be reserved for professionals. This encourages people to make their own.
Neither laboratory studies nor the data on asymptomatic transmission provide watertight evidence of the efficacy of masks. That would need randomised controlled trials, in which one group wore masks and the other did not. This would be ethically tricky, since it might condemn one of the groups to a higher death rate. Hamsters, which are susceptible to covid-19, are the next best thing to people. So researchers at Hong Kong University put cages of healthy hamsters next to cages of infected ones, with a fan in between drawing air from the infected to the healthy cage. They sometimes also placed a stretched-out face mask in the air stream. With no interposed mask, two-thirds of the healthy animals were infected within a week. With a mask interposed close to the healthy hamsters (the equivalent of a healthy person wearing a mask), one-third were. With the mask close to the infected hamsters, only a sixth were.
Although scientists cannot experiment on human beings deliberately, some wonder if the world is now carrying out a natural experiment that tests the value of mask-wearing. In many East Asian countries it was common practice to sport masks, even before covid-19, to protect against respiratory diseases and pollution. A lot of people in these places therefore took immediately to wearing masks when the epidemic started. Countries that adopted masks early on did not, by and large, shut their economies down. Yet they suppressed the disease more effectively than those that locked down but did not wear masks.
There is a correlation between mask-wearing and rapid suppression of covid-19. According to Patricia Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care sciences at Oxford University, “there is not a single country in which mask wearing was introduced early and with high compliance, where the disease wasn’t quickly brought under control.” Sceptics point out that this does not prove masks work, since countries in which they are widely worn also tend to be those which have been threatened by epidemics in the past, and therefore have well-established systems of testing and contact tracing.
In the West nobody normally wears a mask, though the practice is spreading. Universal masking started in the Czech Republic after Petr Ludwig, a Czech YouTube star, posted a video on March 14th recommending the practice, and it went viral. Other social-media influencers posted pictures of themselves wearing masks. “Mask trees”, where people would hang home-made masks for others to use, sprang up on street corners. By March 19th masks were mandatory in the country. Slovakia and Slovenia followed swiftly.
The World Health Organisation has not advocated widespread mask-wearing, and has received some criticism for this. Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco and co-founder of Masks4all, a charity, says “they did a good job of recommending handwashing and social distancing, but they have been slow on masks.”
In light of all this, regulations requiring people to wear masks have spread, as an increasing number of governments view the evidence as strong enough to warrant compulsion. India now requires them to be worn in crowded public spaces, as do France, Germany, Italy and Spain. In most of the world, people either wear them in such spaces without being told to, or are required to by their governments.
Among big countries, Britain and America are outliers. In Britain the government advises people to wear masks, but to little effect. On the London Underground around a third of travellers do so. On the Paris metro where people risk a €135 fine if they fail to cover their faces, everybody does. In America the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which previously recommended mask-wearing only for health workers, changed its mind in early April. It now recommends that everybody should wear them in places where it is hard for people to stay far enough apart. Several states have passed regulations along those lines, as has New York City. But, as Governor Burgum noted, the rows go on.■
This article appeared in the Science & technology section of the print edition under the headline “We interrupt this transmission…”
Joined by Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, Kamala Harris is pushing new legislation that would provide up to $2,000 a month for every U.S. resident. There’s another term for that: a universal basic income.
While UBIs are usually associated with the magical thinking that we’ll at some point reach a fully-automated post-work economy, the closest America came to instituting one was arguably through vast expansions of unemployment benefits during the Great Depression. We’re certainly headed for similar territory now, with a current unemployment rate of nearly 15-percent, and an estimated 20,500,000 jobs lost so far.
The proposal builds on an idea Harris has been kicking around for some years, but which was previously a more modest tax credit of up to $500. This new bill—and we can hypothesize if these unusual times, or the input of considerably more left-leaning Senators Sanders and Markey was a deciding factor—calls for direct cash payments of $2,000 per individual, $2,000 per child, and would apply retroactively to the months of March and April. This could be a life-saving infusion for many Americans who are out of work, especially as no major city has yet instituted any form of rent cancellation.
To be clear, what Harris proposes isn’t a UBI exactly, as it’s not intended to be universal. Those with an income of $100,000 would see decreased payments, while anyone making $120,000 or more would be ineligible to receive the stimulus.
Is it even worth contrasting a proposal to consistently float struggling Americans through this pandemic with an unserious, one-time, $1,200 payment approved by the Trump administration which some people still have not received? No, it most definitely is not—especially since the White House has announced it wouldn’t consider additional stimulus for the rest of the month. Unlike that ridiculous PR scheme, this bill would make funds available, even to those without social security numbers, and also stipulates that the monthly payments cannot be garnished by debt collectors.
All that said, Republicans—led by a majority leader who thought allowing states to propose bankruptcy was a smart idea—control the Senate currently, and are unlikely to vote favorably on any social welfare program. If and when this bill dies on the Senate floor, you’ll know who to blame.
Democrats are seeking to raise benefits as research shows a rise in food insecurity without modern precedent amid the pandemic. But Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of the program.
WASHINGTON — As a padlocked economy leaves millions of Americans without paychecks, lines outside food banks have stretched for miles, prompting some of the overwhelmed charities to seek help from the National Guard.
New research shows a rise in food insecurity without modern precedent. Among mothers with young children, nearly one-fifth say their children are not getting enough to eat, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution, a rate three times as high as in 2008, during the worst of the Great Recession.
The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But despite their support for spending trillions on other programs to mitigate those hardships, Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide.
Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state.
For President Trump, a personal rivalry may also be in play: In his State of the Union address in February, he boasted that falling caseloads showed him besting his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, had derided as “the food stamp president.” Even as the pandemic unfolded, the Trump administration tried to push forward with new work rules projected to remove more people from aid.
Mr. Trump and his congressional allies have agreed to only a short-term increase in food stamp benefits that omits the poorest recipients, including five million children. Those calling for a broader increase say Congress has spent an unprecedented amount on programs invented on the fly while rejecting a proven way to keep hungry people fed.
“This program is the single most powerful anti-hunger tool that we have and one of the most important economic development tools,” said Kate Maehr, the head of the Chicago food bank. “Not to use it when we have so many people who are in such great need is heartbreaking. This is not a war that charity can win.”
The debate in Congress is about the size of benefits, not the numbers on the rolls. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are also known, expands automatically to accommodate need.
“SNAP is working, SNAP will increase,” said Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the program. “Anyone who qualifies is going to get those benefits. We do not need new legislation.”
Mr. Conaway noted that Republicans have supported huge spending on other programs to temper the economic distress, and increased benefits for some SNAP recipients (for the duration of the health emergency, not the economic downturn). Democrats, he said, want to leverage the pandemic into a permanent food stamp expansion.
“I’m a little bit jaded,” he said. “The last time we did this, those changes were sold as being temporary — when unemployment improved, the rolls would revert back. That didn’t happen.”
Rejecting what he called the Democrats’ narrative of “hardhearted Republicans,” he warned against tempting people to become dependent on government aid. “I don’t want to create a moral hazard for people to be on welfare.”
Food stamp supporters say the program is well suited for the crisis because it targets the poor and benefits can be easily adjusted since recipients get them on a debit card. The money gets quickly spent and supplies a basic need.
During the Great Recession, Congress increased maximum benefits by about 14 percent and let states suspend work rules. Caseloads soared. By the time the rolls peaked in 2013, nearly 20 million people had joined the program, an increase of nearly 70 percent, and one in seven Americans received food stamps, including millions with no other income.
Supporters saw a model response. The share of families suffering “very low food security” — essentially, hunger — fell after the benefit expanded (and rose once the increase expired). Analysts at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arloc Sherman and Danilo Trisi, found that in 2012 the program lifted 10 million people out of poverty.
“This is what you want a safety net to do — expand in times of crisis,” said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University.
But a backlash quickly followed, as a weak recovery and efforts to increase participation kept the rolls much higher than they had been before the recession.
Republican governors reinstated work rules for childless adults, and one of them, Sam Brownback of Kansas, succeeded in pushing three-quarters of that population from the rolls. A new conservative think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability, said the policy “freed” the poor and urged others to follow. By the time Mr. Trump introduced his brand of conservative populism, skepticism of food stamps was part of the movement’s genome.
In a history that spans more than a half-century, the program has alternately been celebrated as “nutritional aid” and attacked as “welfare.”
Its current form dates to a 1977 compromise between two Senate lions, the liberal George McGovern and the conservative Bob Dole. But almost simultaneously Ronald Reagan added to a stream of racialized attacks on the program, invoking the image of a “strapping young buck” who used food stamps to buy steaks. As president, Reagan went on to enact large cuts.
After President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare” in the 1990s by restricting cash aid, conservatives sought to include big cuts in food stamps, which he resisted. The law he signed subjected cash aid to time limits and work requirements but allowed similar constraints on just one group of food stamp recipients — adults without minor children, roughly 10 percent of the caseload. (Other provisions disqualified many immigrants.)
His Republican successor, George W. Bush, called himself a “compassionate conservative” and promoted food stamps — partly to help people leaving cash welfare to work — and the caseloads grew by nearly two-thirds.
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“I don’t see it as a welfare program,” said Eric M. Bost, Mr. Bush’s first food stamp administrator. “I see it as a nutritional assistance program. You can only use it to buy food.”
Food stamps remain central to the American safety net — costing much more ($60 billion) than cash aid and covering many more people (38 million). To qualify, a household must have an income of 130 percent of the poverty line or less, about $28,000 for three people. Before the pandemic, the average household had a total income of just over $10,000 and received a benefit of about $239 a month.
But Mr. Trump has done all he can to shrink the program. He sought budget cuts of 30 percent. He tried to replace part of the benefit with “Harvest Boxes” of cheaper commodities. He tried to reduce eligibility and expand work rules to a much larger share of the caseload. When Congress balked, he pursued his goals through regulations. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, called last year for using erroneous food stamp payments to fund the border wall.
“Under the last administration, more than 10 million people were added to the food stamp rolls,” Mr. Trump said in his State of Union speech (understating the growth). “Under my administration, seven million Americans have come off food stamps.”
In December, Mr. Trump issued a rule that made it harder for states to waive work mandates in areas of high unemployment. Conservatives say liberal states have abused waivers to gut the work rules — only six of California’s 58 counties, for example, enforced the requirement at the start of the year.
“Millions of able-bodied, working-age adults continue to collect food stamps without working or even looking for work,” Mr. Trump said.
But opponents of the Trump work rule, which applies to able-bodied adults, say it will punish indigents willing to work but unable to find jobs. Before the pandemic, the administration predicted nearly 700,000 people would lose benefits. They have average cash incomes of about $367 a month.
“This rule would take a group of people who are already incredibly poor, and make them worse off,” said Stacy Dean, vice president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which favors broad access to benefits.
Even as the pandemic unfolded in mid-March, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue vowed to implement the work rule on April 1 as scheduled. A federal judge halted the move, and Congress deferred the rule until the pandemic ends.
A second target of administration ire is a policy that lets states expand eligibility by waiving certain limits on income and assets. About 40 states do so, although the budget center found more than 99 percent of benefits go to households with net incomes below the poverty line ($21,700 for a family of three).
Critics of the policy — “broad-based categorical eligibility” — say it encourages abuse by allowing people with significant savings to collect benefits. The Trump administration is seeking to eliminate it and has predicted that 3.1 million people would lose benefits, 8 percent of the caseload.
The Republican distrust of food stamps has now collided with a monumental crisis. Cars outside food banks have lined up for miles in places as different as San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Miami Beach.
Among those seeking food bank help for the first time was Andrew Schuster, 22, a long-distance trucker who contracted Covid-19 and returned home to recover outside Cleveland.
Unable to get unemployment benefits as the state’s website crashed, he exhausted his $1,200 stimulus check on rent and watched his food shelves empty. He was down to ramen noodles when he learned the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio was distributing food at his high school.
“I felt kind of embarrassed, really, because of the stigma of it,” Mr. Schuster said. But a box of milk, corn and pork loin “lifted a weight off my shoulders — I was almost in tears.”
Mr. Schuster, who voted for Mr. Trump, said that he used to think people abused food stamps, but that he may need to apply. “I never thought I would need it.”
While Mr. Schuster’s income fell, others have seen expenses rise. Jami Clinkscale of Columbus, Ohio, who lives on a disability check of $580 a month, has gone from feeding two people to six after taking in grandchildren when their mother was evicted. She feeds them on $170 of food stamps and frequents food pantries. “I’ve eaten a lot less just to make sure they get what they need,” she said.
The new research by the Brookings Institution underscores the rising need. Analyzing data from the Covid Impact Survey, a nationally representative sample, Lauren Bauer, a Brookings fellow in economic studies, found that nearly 23 percent of households said they lacked money to get enough food, compared with about 16 percent during the worst of the Great Recession. Among households with children, the share without enough food was nearly 35 percent, up from about 21 percent in the previous downturn.
When food runs short, parents often skip meals to keep children fed. But Ms. Bauer’s own survey of households with children 12 and younger found that more than 17.4 percent reported the children themselves not eating enough, compared with 5.7 percent in the Great Recession. (Her survey is called the Survey of Mothers With Young Children.) Inadequate nutrition can leave young children with permanent developmental damage.
“This is alarming,” she said. “These are households cutting back on portion sizes, having kids skip meals. The numbers are much higher than I expected.”
Ms. Bauer said disruptions in school meal programs may be part of the problem, with some families unable to reach distribution sites and older siblings at home competing for limited food.
Republicans say the government is spending trillions to meet such needs. In addition to the stimulus checks, Congress has added $600 a week to jobless benefits through July and raised food stamp benefits during the pandemic for about 60 percent of the caseload, at a cost of nearly $2 billion a month. They note that Democrats have not only pushed a longer benefit increase but proposed to permanently block Mr. Trump’s work rules and asset limitations.
“This is a backdoor way to get permanent changes,” Mr. Conaway said.
Democrats say the emergency help will end before the economy recovers and mostly bypasses the neediest families, few of whom qualify for jobless benefits. About 40 percent of food stamp households — the poorest — were left out of the benefit expansion. (The increase gives all households the maximum benefit, $509 for a family of three, though the poorest 40 percent already received it.)
Prospects for a congressional deal remain unclear and may depend on horse-trading in a larger coronavirus bill. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi is adamant that it should contain a broader food stamp expansion.
“First of all, it’s a moral thing to do,” she said in an interview with MSNBC. “Second of all, the people need it. And third of all, it’s a stimulus to the economy.”
Omar Rodriguez organizes bodies in the Gerard J. Neufeld funeral home in Elmhurst on April 22. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Over the last few weeks, the country has managed to stabilize the spread of the coronavirus sufficiently enough to begin debating when and in what ways to “reopen,” and to normalize, against all moral logic, the horrifying and ongoing death toll — thousands of Americans dying each day, in multiples of 9/11 every week now with the virus seemingly “under control.” The death rate is no longer accelerating, but holding steady, which is apparently the point at which an onrushing terror can begin fading into background noise. Meanwhile, the disease itself appears to be shape-shifting before our eyes.
In an acute column published April 13, the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel listed 48 basic questions that remain unanswered about the coronavirus and what must be done to protect ourselves against it, from how deadly it is to how many people caught it and shrugged it off to how long immunity to the disease lasts after infection (if any time at all). “Despite the relentless, heroic work of doctors and scientists around the world,” he wrote, “there’s so much we don’t know.” The 48 questions he listed, he was careful to point out, did not represent a comprehensive list. And those are just the coronavirus’s “known unknowns.”
In the two weeks since, we’ve gotten some clarifying information on at least a handful of Warzel’s queries. In early trials, more patients taking the Trump-hyped hydroxychloroquinine died than those who didn’t, and the FDA has now issued a statement warning coronavirus patients and their doctors from using the drug. The World Health Organization got so worried about the much-touted antiviral remdesivir, which received a jolt of publicity (and stock appreciation) a few weeks ago on rumors of positive results, the organization leaked an unpublished, preliminary survey showing no benefit to COVID-19 patients. Globally, studies have consistently found exposure levels to the virus in most populations in the low single digits — meaning dozens of times more people have gotten the coronavirus than have been diagnosed with it, though still just a tiny fraction of the number needed to achieve herd immunity. In particular hot spots, the exposure has been significantly more widespread — one survey in New York City found that 21 percent of residents may have COVID-19 antibodies already, making the city not just the deadliest community in the deadliest country in a world during the deadliest pandemic since AIDS, but also the most infected (and, by corollary, the farthest along to herd immunity). A study in Chelsea, Massachusetts, found an even higher and therefore more encouraging figure: 32 percent of those tested were found to have antibodies, which would mean, at least in that area, the disease was only a fraction as severe as it might’ve seemed at first glance, and that the community as a whole could be as much as halfway along to herd immunity. In most of the rest of the country, the picture of exposure we now have is much more dire, with much more infection almost inevitably to come.
But there is one big question that didn’t even make it onto Warzel’s list that has only gotten more mysterious in the weeks since: How is COVID-19 actually killing us?
We are now almost six months into this pandemic, which began in November in Wuhan, with 50,000 Americans dead and 200,000 more around the world. If each of those deaths is a data point, together they represent a quite large body of evidence from which to form a clear picture of the pandemic threat. Early in the epidemic, the coronavirus was seen as a variant of a familiar family of disease, not a mysterious ailment, however infectious and concerning. But while uncertainties at the population level confuse and frustrate public-health officials, unsure when and in what form to shift gears out of lockdowns, the disease has proved just as mercurial at the clinical level, with doctors revising their understanding of COVID-19’s basic pattern and weaponry — indeed often revising that understanding in different directions at once. The clinical shape of the disease, long presumed to be a relatively predictable respiratory infection, is getting less clear by the week. Lately, it seems, by the day. As Carl Zimmer, probably the country’s most respected science journalist, asked virologists in a tweet last week, “is there any other virus out there that is this weird in terms of its range of symptoms?”
You probably have a sense of the range of common symptoms, and a sense that the range isn’t that weird: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath have been, since the beginning of the outbreak, the familiar, oft-repeated group of tell-tale signs. But while the CDC does list fever as the top symptom of COVID-19, so confidently that for weeks patients were turned away from testing sites if they didn’t have an elevated temperature, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, as many as 70 percent of patients sick enough to be admitted to New York State’s largest hospital system did not have a fever.
Over the past few months, Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been compiling and revising, in real time, treatment guidelines for COVID-19 which have become a trusted clearinghouse of best-practices information for doctors throughout the country. According to those guidelines, as few as 44 percent of coronavirus patients presented with a fever (though, in their meta-analysis, the uncertainty is quite high, with a range of 44 to 94 percent). Cough is more common, according to Brigham and Women’s, with between 68 percent and 83 percent of patients presenting with some cough — though that means as many as three in ten sick enough to be hospitalized won’t be coughing. As for shortness of breath, the Brigham and Women’s estimate runs as low as 11 percent. The high end is only 40 percent, which would still mean that more patients hospitalized for COVID-19 do not have shortness of breath than do. At the low end of that range, shortness of breath would be roughly as common among COVID-19 patients as confusion (9 percent), headache (8 to 14 percent), and nausea and diarrhea (3 to 17 percent). That the ranges are so wide themselves tells you that the disease is presenting in very different ways in different hospitals and different populations of different patients — leading, for instance, some doctors and scientists to theorize the virus might be attacking the immune system like HIV does, with many others finding the disease is triggering something like the opposite response, an overwhelming overreaction of the immune system called a “cytokine storm.”
The most bedeviling confusion has arisen around the relationship of the disease to breathing, lung function, and oxygenation levels in the blood — typically, for a respiratory illness, a quite predictable relationship. But for weeks now, front-line doctors have been expressing confusion that so many coronavirus patients were registering lethally low blood-oxygenation levels while still appearing, by almost any vernacular measure, pretty okay. It’s one reason they’ve begun rethinking the initial clinical focus on ventilators, which are generally recommended when patients oxygenation falls below a certain level, but seemed, after a few weeks, of unclear benefit to COVID-19 patients, who may have done better, doctors began to suggest, on lesser or different forms of oxygen support. For a while, ventilators were seen so much as the essential tool in treating life-threatening coronavirus that shortages (and the president’s unwillingness to invoke the Defense Production Act to manufacture them quickly) became a scandal. But by one measure 88 percent of New York patients put on ventilators, for whom an outcome as known, had died. In China, the figure was 86 percent.
On April 20 in the New York Times, an ER doctor named Richard Levitan who had been volunteering at Bellevue proposed that the phenomenon of seemingly stable patients registering lethally low oxygen levels might be explained by “silent hypoxia” — the air sacs in the lung collapsing, not getting stiff or heavy with fluid, as is the case with the pneumonias doctors had been using as models in their treatment of COVID-19. But whether this explanation is universal, limited to the patients at Bellevue, or somewhere in between is not yet entirely clear. A couple of days later, in a pre-print paper others questioned, scientists reported finding that the ability of the disease to mutate has been “vastly underestimated” — investigating the disease as it appeared in just 11 patients, they said they found 30 mutations. “The most aggressive strains could generate 270 times as much viral load as the weakest type,” the South China Morning-Postreported. “These strains also killed the cells the fastest.”
That same day, the Washington Postreported on another theory gaining traction among American doctors treating the disease — that one key could be the way COVID-19 affects the blood of patients, producing much more clotting. “Autopsies have shown that some people’s lungs are filled with hundreds of microclots,” the Post reported. “Errant blood clots of a larger size can break off and travel to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or a heart attack.”
But the bigger-picture perspective the newspaper offered is perhaps more eye-opening and to the point:
One month ago, as the country went into lockdown to prepare for the first wave of coronavirus cases, many doctors felt confident that they knew what they were dealing with. Based on early reports, covid-19 appeared to be a standard variety respiratory virus, albeit a very contagious and lethal one with no vaccine and no treatment. But they’ve since become increasingly convinced that covid-19 attacks not only the lungs, but also the kidneys, heart, intestines, liver and brain.
That is a dizzying list. But it is not even comprehensive. In a fantastic survey published April 17 (“How does coronavirus kill? Clinicians trace a ferocious rampage through the body, from brain to toes,” by Meredith Wadman, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Jocelyn Kaiser, and Catherine Matacic), Science magazine took a thorough, detailed tour of the ever-evolving state of understanding of the disease. “Despite the more than 1,000 papers now spilling into journals and onto preprint servers every week,” Science concluded, “a clear picture is elusive, as the virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.”
In a single illuminating chart, Science lists the following organs as being vulnerable to COVID-19: brain, eyes, nose, lungs, heart, blood vessels, livers, kidneys, intestines. That is to say, nearly every organ:
And the disparate impacts were significant ones: Heart damage was discovered in 20 percent of patients hospitalized in Wuhan, where 44 percent of those in ICU exhibited arrhythmias; 38 percent of Dutch ICU patients had irregular blood clotting; 27 percent of Wuhan patients had kidney failure, with many more showing signs of kidney damage; half of Chinese patients showed signs of liver damage; and, depending on the study, between 20 percent and 50 percent of patients had diarrhea.
On April 15, the Washington Postreported that, in New York and Wuhan, between 14 and 30 percent of ICU patients had lost kidney function, requiring dialysis. New York hospitals were treating so much kidney failure “they need more personnel who can perform dialysis and have issued an urgent call for volunteers from other parts of the country. They also are running dangerously short of the sterile fluids used to deliver that therapy.” The result, the Post said, was rationed care: patients needing 24-hour support getting considerably less. On Saturday, the paper reported that “[y]oung and middle-aged people, barely sick with COVID-19, are dying from strokes.” Many of the patients described didn’t even know they were sick:
The patient’s chart appeared unremarkable at first glance. He took no medications and had no history of chronic conditions. He had been feeling fine, hanging out at home during the lockdown like the rest of the country, when suddenly, he had trouble talking and moving the right side of his body. Imaging showed a large blockage on the left side of his head. Oxley gasped when he got to the patient’s age and covid-19 status: 44, positive.
The man was among several recent stroke patients in their 30s to 40s who were all infected with the coronavirus. The median age for that type of severe stroke is 74.
But the patient’s age wasn’t the only abnormality of the case:
As Oxley, an interventional neurologist, began the procedure to remove the clot, he observed something he had never seen before. On the monitors, the brain typically shows up as a tangle of black squiggles — “like a can of spaghetti,” he said — that provide a map of blood vessels. A clot shows up as a blank spot. As he used a needlelike device to pull out the clot, he saw new clots forming in real-time around it.
“This is crazy,” he remembers telling his boss.
These strokes, several doctors who spoke to the Post theorized, could explain the high number of patients dying at home — four times the usual rate in New York, many or most of them, perhaps, dying quite suddenly. According to the Brigham and Women’s guidelines, only 53 percent of COVID-19 patients have died from respiratory failure alone.
It’s not unheard of, of course, for a disease to express itself in complicated or hard-to-parse ways, attacking or undermining the functioning of a variety of organs. And it’s common, as researchers and doctors scramble to map the shape of a new disease, for their understanding to evolve quite quickly. But the degree to which doctors and scientists are, still, feeling their way, as though blindfolded, toward a true picture of the disease cautions against any sense that things have stabilized, given that our knowledge of the disease hasn’t even stabilized. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is not just a public-health crisis but a scientific one as well. And that as deep as it may feel we are into the coronavirus, with tens of thousands dead and literally billions in precautionary lockdown, we are still in the very early stages, when each new finding seems as likely to cloud or complicate our understanding of the coronavirus as it is to clarify it. Instead, confidence gives way to uncertainty.
In the space of a few months, we’ve gone from thinking there was no “asymptomatic transmission” to believing it accounts for perhaps half or more of all cases, from thinking the young were invulnerable to thinking they were just somewhat less vulnerable, from believing masks were unnecessary to requiring their use at all times outside the house, from panicking about ventilator shortages to deploying pregnancy massage pillows instead. Six months since patient zero, we still have no drugs proven to even help treat the disease. Almost certainly, we are past the “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” stage of this pandemic. But how far past?
Many Americans have been living under lockdown for a month or more. We’re all getting antsy. The president is talking about a “light at the end of the tunnel.” People are looking for hope and reasons to plan a return to something — anything — approximating normalcy. Experts are starting to speculate on what lifting restrictions will look like. Despite the relentless, heroic work of doctors and scientists around the world, there’s so much we don’t know.
We don’t know how many people have been infected with Covid-19.
We don’t know the full range of symptoms.
We don’t always know why some infections develop into severe disease.
We don’t know the full range of risk factors.
We don’t know exactly how deadly the disease is.
We don’t have answers to more detailed questions about how the virus spreads, including: “How many virus particles does it even take to launch an infection? How far does the virus travel in outdoor spaces, or in indoor settings? Have these airborne movements affected the course of the pandemic?”
We don’t know for sure how this coronavirus first emerged.
We don’t know if people will continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines once infections go down.
We don’t know when states will be able to test everyone who has symptoms.
We don’t know if the United States could ever deploy the number of tests — as many as 22 million per day — needed to implement mass testing and quarantining.
We don’t know if we can implement “test and trace” contact tracing at scale.
We don’t know whether smartphone location tracking could be implemented without destroying our privacy.
We don’t know if or when researchers will develop a successful vaccine.
We don’t know how many vaccines can be deployed and administered in the first months after a vaccine becomes available.
We don’t know how a vaccine will be administered — who will get it first?
We don’t know if a vaccine will be free or costly.
We don’t know if a vaccine will need to be updated every year.
We don’t know how, when we do open things up again, we will do it.
We don’t know if people will be afraid to gather in crowds.
We don’t know if people will be too eager to gather in crowds.
We don’t know what socially distanced professional sports will look like.
We don’t know what socially distanced workplaces will look like.
We don’t know what socially distanced bars and restaurants will look like.
We don’t know when schools will reopen.
We don’t know what a general election in a pandemic will look like.
We don’t know what effects lost school time will have on children.
We don’t know if the United States’s current and future government stimulus will stave off an economic collapse.
We don’t know whether the economy will bounce back in the form of a “v curve” …
Or whether it’ll be a long recession.
We don’t know when any of this will end for good.
There is, at present, no plan from the Trump White House on the way forward.
We’re working on a project about the ways people’s lives might be permanently altered by the coronavirus, even after the pandemic subsides. In what ways do you think your life will change in the long term? What will be your new “normal”?
“Government should be doing little or next to nothing,” Richard Ebeling wrote in a post about COVID-19 republished on March 24 by the Heartland Institute. “The problem is a social and medical one, and not a political one.”
“I just think we’re going to be fine. I think everything is going to be fine,” Heartland editorial director and research fellow Justin Haskins said about COVID-19 during a March 13 episode of the podcast In the Tank. “I really don’t think this is going to be a problem even two to three months from now.”
On Dec. 31, 2019, “a pneumonia of unknown cause” was first reported to the World Health Organization’s China Country Office — and in the months following that report, the disease now known as COVID-19 spread to infect millions of people worldwide and seems well on its way to killing hundreds of thousands — while experts warn that the presumed death toll may be significantly higher than we yet know.
As the virus spread, so too did misinformation: baseless predictions that the disease would not cause significant harm, claims of miracle cures, and conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins. That misinformation was often circulated by white-collar professionals — including many who have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community. The overlap was so striking that it caught the attention of both former President Barack Obama and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in March.
Some of that misinformation on COVID-19 came straight from President Trump. But a river of faulty information on the coronavirus also flowed from think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who also have spurned climate science and sought to slow or stop action to respond to the climate crisis.
Some compared COVID-19 to the flu or other threats, suggesting that the flu was a larger threat and that action to slow the spread of the novel virus was an overreaction. As the toll from COVID-19 grew, others argued that the virus was the most important threat and that action to slow climate change was superfluous. Some circulated false or unproven cures and remedies while others touted the benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic (without regard for the health of those living in places where plastics and petrochemicals are produced — like Saint John the Baptist parish, Louisiana, which on April 16, had the highest per-person COVID-19 death rate in the U.S.)
Some attacked renewable energy, some the Green New Deal, and others the World Health Organization (WHO). Some framed efforts to “flatten the curve” of infections as infringements on liberty or simply unnecessary while others persisted in using terms that the WHO has warned can lead to dangerous stigma and discrimination. And some climate science deniers have circulated conspiracy theories, like claims that the virus was a foreign “bioweapon,” that it’s linked to “electrosmog” and 5G networks, or alleged that “the World Health Organization has carried out the greatest fraud perhaps in modern history.”
The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organizations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the center of our attention today.
Many of the operatives spreading COVID disinformation have influence because of the fossil fuel industry.
COVID denial reveals the deadly threat that climate denial poses to all aspects of public health and science.
The American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 “Victory Memo” outlined a broad roadmap to erode public confidence in climate change that went well beyond just the science. Their strategy included plans to “identify, recruit and train” messengers who could “participate in media outreach” on “the climate change debate.” It called for the use of both individuals and third-party organizations to assist in the industry’s efforts to stir doubt about climate science.
To delay climate change-related regulation and policy-making, the oil and gas industry sought to mislead the public and Congress and create distrust of the media.
Decades ago, an industry report drafted by a Mobil executive concluded that theories that had been advanced by climate “contrarians” didn’t hold water —— but the industry nonetheless funded their work on climate change, and now some of those same professionals are speaking out about COVID-19. In 1995, Lenny Bernstein, a Mobil executive, examined the work of climate “contrarians” in a draft report for the Global Climate Coalition (later published omitting that assessment). Bernstein’s draft concluded that “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” One of the arguments that the report draft specifically labeled “not convincing” was credited to Prof. Patrick Michaels, then based at the University of Virginia. In 2010, Michaels — at that point based at the Cato Institute — estimated in a CNN interview that perhaps 40% of his funding came from oil and gas companies.
In a March 9, 2020 article in the Washington Examiner, Michaels — now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — predicted that a proposed European Union law (one intended to slow climate change) would be far more damaging to the economy and to “environmental resilience” than COVID-19. “Make no mistake,” Michaels wrote. “The proposed EU climate law will reverse a lot more progress and a lot more economic and environmental resilience than any probable climate change or, for that matter, coronavirus.” (Another of the scientists whose work was discredited in the draft Global Climate Coalition report, Richard Lindzen, signed onto a March 23, 2020, open letter calling climate change a “non-problem” compared to COVID-19. “As a very first step, designated Green New Deal money must be redirected and invested in a significantly better global health system,” the letter argues. “The past 150 years also show that more CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the Earth and increasing the yields of crops. Why do world leaders ignore these hard facts? Why do world leaders do the opposite with their Green New Deal and lower the quality of life by forcing high-cost, dubious low-carbon energy technologies upon their citizens?”)
COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers.
These attempts to exploit a global pandemic to further the climate denial machine’s anti-science agenda will mean loss of life, and unnecessarily imperil frontline medical personnel by allowing the virus to spread further and more quickly.
Some climate deniers have pushed outright conspiracy theories on COVID-19: claiming, as Piers Corbyn did, that the pandemic is a “world population cull” backed by Bill Gates and George Soros; alleging, as a former member of British Parliament did, that COVID-19 is just a “big hoax”; or, like Alex Jones, seeking to profit directly off of COVID-19 through false marketing, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the New York Attorney General, both of which have warned Jones to desist from marketing a toothpaste he claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit claiming that COVID-19 “was prepared and stockpiled as a biological weapon to be used against China’s perceived enemies.” Principia Scientific International claimed that economies were about to be shut down because “the WHO Director caused a global coronavirus panic over a basic math error,” (referring to early World Health Organization fatality rate numbers). Steve Milloy tweeted out a link to a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Cornelia Griggs, who described working in a New York City hospital amid the pandemic, calling her a “Hysterical doc” and writing “Stop the panic.” (Less than a week later, Milloy tweeted that “#Coronavirus has given us the #GreenDream: —Deprivation — Destroyed economy — Police state”). On April 10 — at a time when over 92,000 deaths had been reported worldwide — Bjorn Lomborg wrote that “Significant data indicate corona is no worse than the common flu.” And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tweeted out a list of leading causes of death on March 10, writing “Likely at the very bottom, Coronavirus: 27.” Six weeks later, more than 14,400 people in New York City had died after contracting the virus.
Not only does their pandemic messaging undermine climate science deniers’ credibility, it also puts on display some of the faulty thinking that can be seen in their discussions of both topics — you see the same logical fallacies at play. There’s the rejection of basic modeling techniques (and early models on both COVID-19 and on climate have ultimately proved tragically accurate). There’s a failure to grasp the ways that an exponential problem can accelerate. There’s a willingness to make assertions that aren’t supported by evidence as well as a willingness to issue blanket assurances that things will be fine without taking into account the evidence. And there’s a reliance on ad hominem attacks and innuendo. These communications tactics used on both issues mirror each other.
The individuals and organizations responsible for spreading disinformation on climate science and COVID-19 will forever cement their reputations on the wrong side of history.
Climate change and the COVID pandemic are both crises.
Some climate science deniers argue that COVID-19 is the “real” crisis — but that’s another logical fallacy, because it’s entirely possible to be confronted with multiple crises at the same time. Some claim that we have to choose between action to fight COVID-19 and action to fight climate change — but that ignores policy options proposed by some advocates who have highlighted ways to respond to the urgencies of COVID-19 and the climate crisis simultaneously.
Some climate science deniers conflate the impacts of slashing carbon emissions through a managed transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles with the slashed emissions that resulted from the dramatic drop in travel caused by shelter-in-place orders — two very different ways to arrive at a similar point. “Brendan O’Neill, editor of Koch-funded website Spiked, argued that ‘this pandemic has shown us what life would be like if environmentalists got their way.’ In a column titled ‘COVID-19: a glimpse of the dystopia greens want us to live in,’ O’Neill claimed government responses to the virus represent a ‘warped dystopia’ that environmentalists like George Monbiot have been calling for,” DeSmog UK reported.
By taking a close look at where those who advocate inaction on climate change erred or misled their audience about the pandemic, it’s possible to learn a great deal — and not only about who has provided reliable information about COVID-19 and who has misled.
There are striking parallels between this pandemic and the climate crisis. The virus’ spread has proven capable of accelerating at an exponential rate.
Similarly, climate scientists have warned for decades that climate change can accelerate exponentially. That means that for both crises, the earlier action is taken, the more effective it is, and more cost efficient too.
Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm, April 22, 2020
A network of right-leaning individuals and groups, aided by nimble online outfits, has helped incubate the fervor erupting in state capitals across the country. The activism is often organic and the frustration deeply felt, but it is also being amplified, and in some cases coordinated, by longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors.
The Convention of States project launched in 2015 with a high-dollar donation from the family foundation of Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican patron. It boasts past support from two members of the Trump administration — Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development.
It also trumpets a prior endorsement from Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida and a close Trump ally who is pursuing an aggressive plan to reopen his state’s economy. A spokesman for Carson declined to comment. Cuccinelli and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.
The initiative, aimed at curtailing federal power, is now leveraging its sweeping national network and digital arsenal to help stitch together scattered demonstrations across the country, making opposition to stay-at-home orders appear more widespread than is suggested by polling.
“We’re providing a digital platform for people to plan and communicate about what they’re doing,” said Eric O’Keefe, board president of Citizens for Self-Governance, the parent organization of the Convention of States project.
A longtime associate of the conservative activist Koch family, O’Keefe helped manage David Koch’s 1980 bid for the White House when he served as the No. 2 on the Libertarian ticket.
“To shut down our rural counties because of what’s going on in New York City, or in some sense Milwaukee, is draconian,” said O’Keefe, who lives in Wisconsin.
Polls suggest most Americans support local directives encouraging them to stay at home as covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, ravages the country, killing more than 44,000 people in the United States so far. Public health officials, including epidemiologists advising Trump’s White House, agree that sweeping restrictions represent the most effective mitigation strategy in the absence of a vaccine, which could be more than a year away.
Still, some activists insist that states should lift controls on commercial activity and public assembly, citing the effects of mass closures on businesses. They have been encouraged at times by Trump, whose attorney general, William P. Barr, said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that the Justice Department would consider supporting lawsuits against restrictions that go “too far.”
The swelling frustration on the right coincides with major policy changes in some states, especially those with Republican governors. Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee have all begun relaxing their restrictions in recent days after bowing to pressure and imposing far-reaching guidelines.
The protests are reminiscent in some ways of the tea party movement and the demonstrations against the Affordable Care Act that erupted in 2010, which also involved a mix of homegrown activism and shrewd behind-the-scenes funding.
For the Convention of States, public health is an unusual focus. It was founded to push for a convention that would add a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. That same anti-government impulse is now animating the group’s campaign against coronavirus precautions.
“Heavy-handed government orders that interfere with our most basic liberties will do more harm than good,” read its Facebook ads, which had been viewed as many as 36,000 times as of Tuesday evening.
Asking for a $5 donation “to support our fight,” the paid posts are part of an online blitz called “Open the States,” which also includes newly created websites, a data-collecting petition and an ominous video about the economic effects of the lockdown.
The group’s president, Mark Meckler, said his aim was to act as a “clearinghouse where these guys can all find each other” — a role he learned as co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group also active in the tea party movement, is seeking to play a similar function, creating an online calendar of protests.
“The major need back in 2009 was no different than it is today — some easy centralizing point to list events, to allow people to communicate with each other,” he said.
Meckler, who draws a salary of about $250,000 from the Convention of States parent group, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service, hailed the “spontaneous citizen groups self-organizing on the Internet and protesting what they perceive to be government overreach.”
So far, the protests against stay-at-home orders in states including Washington and Pennsylvania have captured headlines and drawn rebukes from some governors and epidemiologists. Experts say a sudden, widespread reopening of the country is likely to worsen the outbreak, overwhelming hospitals and killing tens of thousands.
The protesters so far have not aimed their ire at Trump, though it is his administration’s experts whose guidelines underlie many of the states’ actions.
Trump’s public comments — including his recent tweets calling for supporters to “liberate” states including Michigan, a coronavirus hot spot — have catalyzed some of the broader public reaction. Following those tweets, tens of thousands of people joined Facebook groups calling for protests in states including Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the efforts are coordinated by a trio of brothers who typically focus their efforts on fighting gun control.
In recent days, conservatives have set their sights on Wisconsin, where a few dozen protesters turned out at the Capitol to air their frustrations with Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, after he extended his state’s stay-at-home order until late May. Ahead of the demonstration, Moore, the Trump ally, revealed on a live stream that he was “working with a group” in the state with the goal of trying “to shut down the capital.”
Moore, who served as a Trump campaign adviser in 2016, said he had located a big donor to aid in the effort, though he never elaborated. “I told him about this, and he said, ‘Steve, I promise to pay the bail and legal fees for anyone who gets arrested,’ ” Moore said in the video. He likened his quest to the civil rights movement, adding, “We need to be the Rosa Parks here and protest against these government injustices.”
Moore, who has also worked at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Michigan, among those organizing “Operation Gridlock” was Meshawn Maddock, who sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board and is a prominent figure in the “Women for Trump” coalition. Funds to promote the demonstrations on Facebook came from the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by Greg McNeilly, a longtime adviser to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
McNeilly said the money used to advance the anti-quarantine protests came from “grass-roots fundraising efforts” and had “nothing to do with any DeVos work.”
Many of the seemingly scattered, spontaneous outbursts of citizen activism reflect deeply interwoven networks of conservative and libertarian nonprofit organizations. One of the most vocal groups opposing the lockdown in Texas is an Austin-based conservative think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which also hails the demonstrations nationwide.
“Some Americans are angry,” its director wrote in an op-ed promoted on Facebook and placed in the local media, telling readers in Texas about the achievements of protesters in Michigan.
The board vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, oil executive Tim Dunn, is also a founding board member of the group promoting the Convention of States initiative. And the foundation’s former president, Brooke Rollins, now works as an assistant to Trump in the Office of American Innovation.
Neither Dunn nor Rollins responded to requests for comment.
The John Hancock Committee for the States — the name used in IRS filings by the group behind the Convention of States — gave more than $100,000 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2011.
The Convention of States project, meanwhile, has received backing from DonorsTrust, a tax-exempt financial conduit for right-wing causes that does not disclose its contributors. The same fund has helped bankroll the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which is encouraging protests of a stay-at-home order imposed by the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little.
“Disobey Idaho,” say its Facebook ads, which use an image of the “Join or Die” snake woodcut emblematic of the Revolutionary War and later adopted by the tea party movement.
In 2014, the year before it launched the Convention of States initiative, Citizens for Self-Governance received $500,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation, a donation Meckler said helped jump-start the campaign. Mercer declined to comment.
While groups and individual activists associated with the Koch brothers have boosted this far-flung network, Emily Seidel, the chief executive of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity advocacy group, sought to distance the organization from the protest activity, which she said was “not the best way” to “get people back to work.”
“Instead, we are working directly with policymakers, to bring business leaders and public health officials together to help develop standards to safely reopen the economy without jeopardizing public health,” Seidel said.
But others see linkages to groups pushing anti-quarantine uprisings.
“The involvement of the Koch institutional apparatus in groups supporting these protests is clear to me,” said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University whose research has focused on climate lobbying. “The presence of allies on the board usually means that they are deeply engaged in the organization and most likely a funder.”
Brulle said the blowback against the coronavirus precautions carries echoes of efforts to deny climate change, both of which rely on hostility toward government action.
“These are extreme right-wing efforts to delegitimize government,” he said. “It’s an anti-government crusade.”
The initiative has collected over 140,000 biological samples from animals and found over 1,000 new viruses, including a new strain of Ebola. Predict also trained about 5,000 people in 30 African and Asian countries, and has built or strengthened 60 medical research laboratories, mostly in poor countries.
Dennis Carroll, the former director of USAID’s emerging threats division who helped design Predict, oversaw it for a decade and retired when it was shut down. The surveillance project is closing because of “the ascension of risk-averse bureaucrats,” he said.
Because USAID’s chief mission is economic aid, he added, some federal officials felt uncomfortable funding cutting-edge science like tracking exotic pathogens.
Congress, along with the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were “enormously supportive,” said Dr. Carroll, who is now a fellow at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
“But things got complicated in the last two years, and by January, Predict was essentially collapsed into hibernation.”
The end of the program “is definitely a loss,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit global health organization that received funding from the program. “Predict was an approach to heading off pandemics, instead of sitting there waiting for them to emerge and then mobilizing. That’s expensive.”
“The United States spent $5 billion fighting Ebola in West Africa,” he added. “This costs far less.”
It has long been known, of course, that AIDS originated in chimpanzees and probably was first contracted by bushmeat hunters. Ebola circulates in bats and apes, while SARS was found in captive civet cats in China.
These discoveries led to new ways of preventing spillovers of infections into human populations: closing markets where wildlife is butchered for food,; putting bamboo skirts on sap-collection jars to keep bats out; or penning pigs and camels in places where they cannot eat fruit that bats have gnawed.
Predict teams have investigated mysterious disease outbreaks in many countries, including a die-off of 3,000 wild birds in a Mongolian lake. One team proved that endangered otters in a Cambodian zoo were killed by their feed — raw chickens infected with bird flu.
A Predict laboratory helped identify bat-borne viruses that a boys’ soccer team might have been exposed to while trapped for weeks in a cave in Thailand.
Allowing Predict to end “is really unfortunate, and the opposite of what we’d like to see happening,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and former World Health Organization director-general.
Even though USAID is “incredibly proud and happy over the work Predict has done,” the program is closing because it reached the end of a 10-year funding cycle, said Irene Koek, acting assistant administrator of the agency’s global health bureau.
“We typically do programs in five-year cycles, and it had two,” she said. Some similar research will be part of future budget requests, “but it’s still in the design-and-procurement cycle, so exactly what will continue is a bit of a black box.”
In mid-October, the agency said it would spend $85 million over the next five years helping universities in Africa and Asia teach the “one-health” approach that Predict used. (“One health” describes the nexus between animal, human and environmental medicine).
But it will not involve the daring fieldwork that Predict specialized in.
Some Predict projects will be taken over by other government agencies, such as the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency or the National Institutes of Health. But those agencies have different missions, such as basic research or troop protection. They do not share USAID’s goal of training poor countries to do the work themselves.
As an agency that gives money to countries, USAID often has a friendlier, more cooperative relationship with governments in poor nations than, for example, Pentagon-led efforts might.
“I’ve always been impressed with the way they were able to work with ministries of health,” said Dr. James M. Hughes, a former chief of infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who was on Predict’s advisory board. “They have a high level of trust, and they help countries comply with the International Health Regulations.”
(Those regulations, in force since 2007, require countries to report all major disease outbreaks to the World Health Organization and allow the W.H.O. to declare health emergencies.)
USAID still supports some health-related programs like the President’s Malaria Initiative and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. But Dr. Carroll described those as “cookbook portfolios.”
How to fight those diseases is well-known, he explained, so the agency just comes up with a budget for drugs, diagnostic kits, insecticides, mosquito nets, condoms or other long-established interventions.
Predict more often placed medical detectives in the field, training local doctors, veterinarians, wildlife rangers and others to collect samples from wild and domestic animals.
It can be highly specialized work. Getting blood samples from pigs or wild rodents is fairly routine, but catching birds, bats or monkeys alive is not. Gorillas are harder. (Scientists usually content themselves with just collecting gorilla feces.)
Predict also experimented with novel ways to catch and release animals unharmed, to transport samples without refrigeration and to use DNA testing that can scan for whole viral families instead of just known viruses, said Dr. Christine Kreuder Johnson, associate director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis.
Predict sponsored epidemiological modeling to predict where outbreaks are likely to erupt. It also sought ways to curb practices, such as hunting for bushmeat or breeding racing camels, that encourage eruptions.
The Zaire strain was found in a bat that roosts in caves and mines, said Dr. Jonathan Epstein, an EcoHealth Alliance veterinarian, while the Bombali type was in a species that roosts in houses.
Distinctions like that are important for telling people — especially people who eat bats — which species are dangerous.
“We generated an illustrated book on how to keep bats out of houses by putting screens on windows or mesh below the roof thatch,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing Predict paid for.”
Predict served as a proof of concept for a much more ambitious idea that Dr. Carroll proposed several years ago: the Global Virome Project, which envisioned trying to compile a genetic atlas of all the viruses circulating in all animals. By some estimates, there are more than 800,000 such viruses waiting to be discovered.
“Predict needed to go on for 20 years, not 10,” Dr. Epstein said. “We were getting to the point of having a trained work force that could gather animal samples and labs that could test for unknown viruses, not just known ones.”
“Once it stops, it’s going to be hard to maintain that level of proficiency.”
The spread of the virus through the food and grocery industry is expected to cause disruptions in production and distribution of certain products like pork, industry executives, labor unions and analysts have warned in recent days. The issues follow nearly a month of stockpiling of food and other essentials by panicked shoppers that have tested supply networks as never before.
Industry leaders and observers acknowledge the shortages could increase, but they insist it is more of an inconvenience than a major problem. People will have enough to eat; they just may not have the usual variety. The food supply remains robust, they say, with hundreds of millions of pounds of meat in cold storage. There is no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food or its packaging, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Still, the illnesses have the potential to cause shortages lasting weeks for a few products, creating further anxiety for Americans already shaken by how difficult it can be to find high-demand staples like flour and eggs.
“You might not get what you want when you want it,” said Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank in New York. “Consumers like to have a lot of different choices, and the reality is in the short term, we just don’t have the labor to make that happen.”
In one of the most significant signs of pressure since the pandemic began, Smithfield Foods became the latest company to announce a shutdown, announcing Sunday that it would close its processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., after 230 workers became ill with the virus. The plant produces more than 5 percent of the nation’s pork.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield’s chief executive, Kenneth M. Sullivan, said in a statement.
As of Saturday, the plant’s Covid-19 cases were more than half South Dakota’s active total, Gov. Kristi Noem said. She called the outbreak an “alarming statistic” and asked Smithfield to shut down the facility for two weeks.
The problems at the Sioux Falls pork plant show the food processing industry’s vulnerability to an outbreak. Employees often work shoulder to shoulder, and some companies have granted sick leave only to employees who test positive for the coronavirus. That potentially leaves on the job thousands of other infected workers who haven’t been tested, hastening the infection’s spread.
Other major processors have had to shut down plants. JBS USA, the world’s largest meat processor, closed a plant in Pennsylvania for two weeks. Last week, Cargill closed a facility in Pennsylvania where it produces steaks, ground beef and ground pork. And Tyson halted operations at a pork plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive.
“Labor is going to be the biggest thing that can break,” said Karan Girotra, a supply-chain expert at Cornell University. “If large numbers of people start getting sick in rural America, all bets are off.”
At the other end of the supply chain, grocery stores are also dealing with increasing illnesses among workers, as well as absences by those afraid to go in to work.
Even as company officials called them “essential” for their role in feeding the country, grocery store workers went weeks without being provided with face masks and other protective gear.
Some food companies have been slow to provide the gear, while others tried but found that their orders were rerouted to the health care industry, where there is also a dire need. A few grocery workers say they are still waiting to be supplied with masks, despite federal health guidelines that recommend everybody wear one in public.
The workers also face a threat from their exposure to customers, who continue to stock up on food. Some, the workers say, don’t wear masks and fail to keep an adequate level of social distancing.
There are no government agencies tracking illnesses among food industry workers nationwide. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million grocery store, food processing and meat packing employees, said on Monday that at least 1,500 of its members had been infected with the virus and that 30 of them have died.
“The Covid-19 pandemic represents a clear and present danger to our workers and our nation’s food supply,” U.F.C.W. International’s president, Marc Perrone, said.
Even before the illnesses began to spread through the industry, the supply chain had been tested intensely. Truck drivers, who were already scarce before the pandemic, couldn’t make deliveries fast enough. Hot dog factories and dairy farmers ramped up production in response to waves of panic buying.
Those surges continue to take a toll on a system that had been built largely for customers seeking speed and convenience, not stockpiling. On Sunday, Amazon said it was getting new customers seeking online grocery delivery from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh to effectively sign up for a wait list. It’s an unusual concession for an internet giant that is used to unimpeded growth.
On some days, shoppers still cannot find flour, eggs or other staples that are in high demand. Retailers and manufacturers have offered reassurances that these shortages are temporary and merely reflect a distribution and production network that cannot work fast enough.
The parts of the food system that will suffer the worst disruptions are the ones dependent on heavily consolidated supply chains that employ large numbers of people, Mr. Girotra of Cornell said.
The Smithfield plant in South Dakota is a stark example of a vulnerable link in the chain. On its own, it produces 130 million servings of food per week. It employs 3,700 people, many of whom work closely together deboning and cutting up meat.
Last week, South Dakota officials watched the number of cases there increase at an alarming rate. Smithfield said it would shut down the building for three days to sanitize the facility. But as the number of Covid-19 cases surpassed more than half of all cases in Sioux Falls and the surrounding county, state officials asked the plant to close for 14 days “to protect the employees, the families, the Sioux Falls community and the people of South Dakota,” Governor Noem said on Saturday.
The next day, Smithfield said it would shut down “until further notice” and pay its workers for the next two weeks.
The state has not reported outbreaks at any other meat processing plants. South Dakota officials said Smithfield had ramped up testing of its employees, suggesting that this could have resulted in rates that were higher than in other populations in the state.
Some big food producers are coming up with contingency plans. Absences have risen at some plants run by the Mississippi-based chicken processor Sanderson Farms, though not at a level that would significantly disrupt production, said Mike Cockrell, the company’s chief financial officer.
The company has explored alternatives in case large numbers of its workers become sick. Much of the labor at a processing plant involves deboning chicken and dividing it into cuts like breasts, thighs and wings. A reduced staff could continue packaging chicken but skip the labor-intensive process of dividing up the birds.
“You could change your mix and produce a less consumer-friendly product with fewer people,” Mr. Cockrell said. “That’s not a disaster.”
At the grocery store, he said, “you would see a whole chicken, and you could take that chicken home.”
In the grocery industry, many of the solutions to keeping the supply chain functioning are also simple, workers say. The U.F.C.W., for instance, is urging states to mandate that shoppers wear masks and appealing to customers to “shop smart” by refraining from touching products, using a shopping list and making fewer trips to the store.
Aaron Squeo, who works in the meat department at a Kroger supermarket in Madison Heights, Mich., said customers needed to practice better social distancing.
“I have seen whole families out like it’s an outing,” Mr. Squeo said. “This can’t continue like this. We need to truly change how we shop. Our lives are at stake.”
Covid-19 is killing off the myth that we are the greatest country on earth.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
April 10, 2020
This article is part of “The America We Need,” a Times Opinion series exploring how the nation can emerge from this crisis stronger, fairer and more free. Read the introductory editorial and the editor’s letter.
Sometimes people ask me what it takes to be a writer. The only things you have to do, I tell them, are read constantly; write for thousands of hours; and have the masochistic ability to absorb a great deal of rejection and isolation. As it turns out, these qualities have prepared me well to deal with life in the time of the coronavirus.
The fact that I am almost enjoying this period of isolation — except for bouts of paranoia about imminent death and rage at the incompetence of our nation’s leadership — makes me sharply aware of my privilege. It is only through my social media feeds that I can see the devastation wreaked on people who have lost their jobs and are worried about paying the rent. Horror stories are surfacing from doctors and nurses, people afflicted with Covid-19, and those who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Many of us are getting a glimpse of dystopia. Others are living it.
If anything good emerges out of this period, it might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our body politic. We were not as healthy as we thought we were. The biological virus afflicting individuals is also a social virus. Its symptoms — inequality, callousness, selfishness and a profit motive that undervalues human life and overvalues commodities — were for too long masked by the hearty good cheer of American exceptionalism, the ruddiness of someone a few steps away from a heart attack.
Even if America as we know it survives the coronavirus, it can hardly emerge unscathed. If the illusion of invincibility is shredded for any patient who survives a near-fatal experience, then what might die after Covid-19 is the myth that we are the best country on earth, a belief common even among the poor, the marginal, the precariat, who must believe in their own Americanness if in nothing else.
Perhaps the sensation of imprisonment during quarantine might make us imagine what real imprisonment feels like. There are, of course, actual prisons where we have warehoused human beings who have no relief from the threat of the coronavirus. There are refugee camps and detention centers that are de facto prisons. There is the economic imprisonment of poverty and precariousness, where a missing paycheck can mean homelessness, where illness without health insurance can mean death.Debatable: Agree to disagree, or disagree better? Broaden your perspective with sharp arguments on the most pressing issues of the week.
But at the same time, prisons and camps have often served as places where new consciousnesses are born, where prisoners become radicalized, become activists and even revolutionaries. Is it too much to hope that the forced isolation of many Americans, and the forced labor of others, might compel radical acts of self-reflection, self-assessment and, eventually, solidarity?
A crisis often induces fear and hatred. Already we are seeing a racist blowback against Asians and Asian-Americans for the “Chinese virus.” But we have a choice: Will we accept a world of division and scarcity, where we must fight over insufficient resources and opportunities, or imagine a future when our society is measured by how well it takes care of the ill, the poor, the aged and the different?
As a writer, I know that such a choice exists in the middle of a story. It is the turning point. A hero — in this case, the American body politic, not to mention the president — is faced with a crucial decision that will reveal who he or she fundamentally is.
We are not yet at the halfway point of our drama. We have barely made it to the end of the first act, when we slowly awaken to the threat coming our way and realize we must take some kind of action. That action, for now, is simply doing what we must to fight off Covid-19 and survive as a country, weakened but alive.
The halfway point comes only when the hero meets a worthy opponent — not one who is weak or marginal or different, but someone or something that is truly monstrous. Covid-19, however terrible, is only a movie villain. Our real enemy does not come from the outside, but from within. Our real enemy is not the virus but our response to the virus — a response that has been degraded and deformed by the structural inequalities of our society.
America has a history of settler colonization and capitalism that ruthlessly exploited natural resources and people, typically the poor, the migratory, the black and the brown. That history manifests today in our impulse to hoard, knowing that we live in an economy of self-reliance and scarcity; in our dependence on the cheap labor of women and racial minorities; and in our lack of sufficient systems of health care, welfare, universal basic income and education to take care of the neediest among us.
What this crisis has revealed is that, while almost all of us can become vulnerable — even corporations and the wealthy — our government prioritizes the protection of the least vulnerable.
If this was a classic Hollywood narrative, the exceptionally American superhero, reluctant and wavering in the first act, would make the right choice at this turning point. The evil Covid-19 would be conquered, and order would be restored to a society that would look just as it did before the villain emerged.
But if our society looks the same after the defeat of Covid-19, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. We can expect a sequel, and not just one sequel, but many, until we reach the finale: climate catastrophe. If our fumbling of the coronavirus is a preview of how the United States will handle that disaster, then we are doomed.
But amid the bumbling, there are signs of hope and courage: laborers striking over their exploitation; people donating masks, money and time; medical workers and patients expressing outrage over our gutted health care system; a Navy captain sacrificing his career to protect his sailors; even strangers saying hello to other strangers on the street, which in my city, Los Angeles, constitutes a nearly radical act of solidarity.
I know I am not the only one thinking these thoughts. Perhaps this isolation will finally give people the chance to do what writers do: imagine, empathize, dream. To have the time and luxury to do these things is already to live on the edge of utopia, even if what writers often do from there is to imagine the dystopic. I write not only because it brings me pleasure, but also out of fear — fear that if I do not tell a new story, I cannot truly live.
Americans will eventually emerge from isolation and take stock of the fallen, both the people and the ideas that did not make it through the crisis. And then we will have to decide which story will let the survivors truly live.
Pen pal programs have sprouted up around the world as schools and senior centers try to keep older adults connected and children occupied.
By Mihir Zaveri, April 10, 2020
Mike Boggs found himself staring out the window at his assisted living center in Sioux City, Iowa, wondering when the coronavirus pandemic would end and when he would be able to safely go outside again.
Mr. Boggs, 63, struggled with dementia. He missed his wife, who was no longer allowed to visit. When the center decided in late March to halt communal meals to protect its residents, he felt his world grow even smaller.
Days before in the same city, Lincoln Colling, 15, found out that his school, East High School, would close. There would be no more team sports and no more student council meetings. Boredom set in.
But in their isolation — and despite their five-decade age difference — Mr. Boggs and Lincoln have forged a new connection. They have become pen pals through an informal partnership between the assisted living center and the student council at Lincoln’s school aimed at connecting teenagers with older adults, a population that was at risk of being socially isolated even before the coronavirus outbreak forced them into further seclusion.
In recent weeks, similar programs have sprouted up in Australia and Europe, and across the United States — in Sioux City; Madison, Conn.; Clear Lake, Texas; and beyond — as schools, nursing homes, libraries and senior centers try to keep older adults connected and children occupied.
Mr. Boggs received his first letter from Lincoln the day that the center, Bickford Senior Living, ended communal dining. Lincoln wrote casually on a page of notebook paper about how team sports had been shut down, how he was running to stay in shape and how his basketball team won a city championship last year.
“It affected me pretty personally,” Mr. Boggs said in an interview. “I’ve never had a pen pal before. This is a first time for me. I think it’s a great idea to keep open communication with the kids while we’re isolated inside — to keep that open line going.”
Mr. Boggs wrote in a one-page response: “Remember to eat a lot of spinach like Popeye that will keep you strong.”
Lincoln said that getting a letter back from Mr. Boggs was “so cool.”
“I feel like I could do this for a very long time,” Lincoln said.
Older people tend to have fewer social connections, particularly as their physical and mental health declines, said Dawn Carr, a sociology professor at Florida State University who studies aging and health. They are less likely to have jobs and the casual relationships that come with those jobs, she said.
Social isolation and loneliness are linked to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, said Dr. Carr, who is also a faculty associate at the Pepper Institute for Aging and Public Policy. Because people over 60 — and especially those over 80 — are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, social-distancing measures strictly warn or prohibit people from interacting with them.
“They are less likely now than ever to have even the small interactions that they had in daily life,” Dr. Carr said.
The pen pal programs are trying to change that.
“It makes a connection between a younger person and an older person,” said Pat McCormick, 79, who received a letter at Bickford Senior Living from a student who wrote about cheerleading and an upcoming trip to Texas. “It’s interesting for me to hear what these young people are doing.”
A similar program in Warminster, Pa., sought volunteers to write one email a week about a personal hobby or a funny story that would then be passed along to someone living in a nursing home. (The program’s website now says it is “at capacity” and cannot take any more volunteers.) In March, a retirement community in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., put out a call on social media for letters from children “in an effort to stay connected to our community and help parents combat boredom with their little ones at home.”
Dr. Carr said that such programs would be more successful in helping older people who are isolated if they encouraged two-way communication — a “back and forth” — and created social bonds. She said that intergenerational communication could be particularly beneficial, fostering empathy and civic engagement.
“Maybe this terrible thing that’s happened to us can shed light on the importance of building programs that actually work,” she said.
Town officials in Madison, Conn., started a pen pal program after its senior center — which holds exercise classes and games during the day, among other services — shuttered in mid-March in response to the pandemic.
“You have two populations that are stuck at home, that are isolated,” said Heather Noblin, the center’s assistant director of senior services.
For about two weeks, Ms. Noblin has been matching older adults with children. She had made more than a dozen matches as of Thursday afternoon. The “letters” would be sent through email to keep from potentially exposing recipients to the coronavirus. She said interest in the program was growing.
“I think it’s definitely still bubbling,” she said.
Christina Acampora read about the program in a local newspaper on March 26. Her daughter, Lucia, 9, already had a pen pal with a peer in New Jersey. But the idea of corresponding with an older person intrigued them both.
“I think that it’s good for the seniors because they can’t have any visitors,” Lucia said.
Lucia was matched with LouAnne Castrilli, 65, who recently retired as an administrative assistant with Madison’s Youth and Family Services department.
“She told me the things that she likes and the things that she does,” Ms. Castrilli said. “She likes ballet, and things like that, and then she asked me a bunch of questions, like what is my favorite color, what do I do for fun. Then we got talking back and forth.”
The new pen pals have exchanged four emails so far. Ms. Castrilli said they were the highlight of her day. And as it turned out, she and Lucia have a lot in common. They both like walking on the beach. They both like scrapbooking. They share a favorite color, pink.
“Maybe when this is all over,” Ms. Castrilli said, “maybe we will get to meet each other, which will be kind of fun.”
Mihir Zaveri is a general assignment reporter on the Express Desk. He previously worked at The Houston Chronicle.
When Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) found out that a Trump administration rule that restricts research using fetal tissue from elective abortions was hampering scientists seeking treatments for the novel coronavirus, he had a coterie of like-minded members of Congress ready to help him protest.
The group is called the Congressional Freethought Caucus — the first caucus for nonreligious members of Congress and those who advocate for keeping religion out of government. Huffman, the only avowed non-theist in Congress, and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) founded the group in 2018.
The coronavirus struck just as the caucus’s dozen members were having discussions early this year about how they could play a more active role in policymaking. The crisis has provided an opportunity for them to loudly proclaim the importance of science as the grounding for laws.
“We urge you to prioritize science during an unprecedented global health emergency and remove all barriers to lifesaving research,” Huffman wrote in a public letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, asking HHS to remove its ban on government scientists using fetal tissue that women choose to donate to research after an abortion. Four fellow members of the Freethought Caucus added their names to the letter, and they got eight colleagues outside the caucus to sign on.
While the small band of lawmakers in the Freethought Caucus comes nowhere close to the powerful heft of the religious right, they say they hope to be a counterweight, pushing the balance back toward secularism.
These lawmakers are agitating for secularism within a legislature that has long been comfortable with some level of mixing faith with government — every session starts with a prayer from a congressional chaplain or an invited religious guest — and that skews far more religious than the country it represents. More than a quarter of Americans say they identify with no religious tradition, and almost 1 in 10 say they don’t believe in God or aren’t sure God exists. Huffman is the only one out of 535 members of Congress who says the same.
As the caucus members discussed ramping up their efforts in the early months of the year, they listed many goals: Passing a bill condemning the blasphemy laws that target nonbelievers and dissident believers in foreign countries. Securing government funding for secular sobriety programs that compete with the higher-power-focused Alcoholics Anonymous. Passing legislation that would make it harder for the president to disband scientific advisory committees.
In early March, before the coronavirus took precedence, Huffman said one of his main goals for the caucus was getting behind the No Ban Act, a bill that would put an end to President Trump’s travel ban (the one that started at the beginning of his presidency, not the new coronavirus-inspired bans). Huffman and many other Democratic lawmakers view the president’s ban as targeting Muslims specifically.
Though a few well-known congressional caucuses have significant legislative clout, most caucuses exist simply as a way for members to sign up and show affiliation with a cause, not as active advocacy groups. Huffman and Raskin are trying to turn their two-year-old affiliate group into more of a mover and shaker.
Recently, Huffman set up a meeting on Capitol Hill on behalf of former Muslims from countries where being a nonbeliever might expose them to violence or prosecution. These former Muslims said that they had been conversing in secret Facebook groups, but that Facebook’s policies could allow their identities to be potentially exposed. Huffman got three Facebook employees to attend a meeting to discuss remedies to the problem.
When Dan Barker, the president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the House chaplain in an attempt to get permission to deliver a nonreligious invocation before the House like clergymen do, the Freethought Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief.
Barker said the caucus invited him and other leaders of secular organizations to a meeting in February, where they asked for ideas of issues to work on. The idea of supporting secular addiction recovery programs was a popular one.
“We’ve always known not all members of Congress are religious. … They thought it was politically dangerous. Now we’re learning that it’s not so dangerous anymore, especially with the demographics. The fastest-growing religious idea right now in the country is nonreligious,” Barker said. “It was really fun to sit around the table with our representatives talking about real secular values.”
The caucus’s dozen members are all Democrats. Three are Jewish — Raskin, Steve Cohen (Tenn.) and Susan Wild (Pa.); two are Catholic — Daniel Kildee (Mich.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.); Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) is Lutheran; and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) is Episcopalian. One of the two Buddhists in Congress, Hank Johnson (Ga.), is a member. Three members have not answered CQ Roll Call’s questionnaire asking every U.S. lawmaker’s religion — Sean Casten (Ill.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.) — but have never identified themselves as nonreligious like Huffman.
In early March, Huffman went to a meeting of the far larger and more influential Progressive Caucus and made a pitch for members to join the Freethought Caucus. Some are thinking about it, he said.
The nation is growing increasingly nonreligious. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 26 percent of Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religious tradition, compared with 17 percent in 2009.
Many of those unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and incorporate spiritual practices into their lives. But the share of atheists has doubled, from 2 percent of Americans in 2009 to 4 percent in 2019. An additional 5 percent now call themselves agnostics, compared with 3 percent a decade earlier.
Nonreligious people are far less organized than religious groups, which have the advantage of gathering their believers together every week. But secular groups like the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association have lobby days where they take like-minded citizens to petition their members of Congress, and Huffman said his colleagues have taken notice.
“Their numbers are beginning to surprise people,” Huffman said. “This caucus is probably going to be more and more relevant. People are going to start demanding this kind of work in Congress.”
Jason Lemieux, who leads lobbying efforts for the secular Center for Inquiry, said it’s important for Americans to simply see this group exists in Congress.
“They consider it a very important goal to even have this place at all, where you can be a member of Congress and not believe in God, or explicitly support the rights of those who don’t believe in God,” he said.
Raskin said his advocacy for secularism sneaks into his unrelated work as a congressman. In his recent time in the spotlight as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings, Raskin said he tried to quote as often as possible from Thomas Paine — the pamphleteer of the American Revolution, who was outspokenly skeptical of religion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked him to change Paine’s most famous sentence, he said, in a nod to gender equality: “These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls.”
Raskin wants to get a statue of Paine put up somewhere in or near the Capitol. When he and Huffman first founded the Freethought Caucus, he suggested a different name for it: the Thomas Paine Caucus.
But the people they consulted told them that Paine’s ideas were still too radical, more than two centuries later.
As parts of the United States settle in for what may be the worst weeks of their local covid-19 outbreaks, a familiar refrain is sure to emerge.
Some people will complain that the death count attributed to the coronavirus is being exaggerated. Others, including researchers, have argued that covid-19 related deaths are actually being undercounted, as people die at home without being tested. Still others will point to the final death count and say that because it’s lower than X (whether that number be flu deaths, car accident deaths, or some other moving goalpost), then that means the efforts and sacrifices made for social distancing weren’t worth it—ignoring, of course, that social distancing was the reason the toll wasn’t much higher. Figuring out how deadly covid-19 truly is will take far more time to untangle than anyone would want, and no one’s likely to be fully satisfied with the answers we get.
As of April 10, there have been around 1.6 million reported cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus worldwide. There have also been over 96,000 reported deaths, with over 16,000 deaths documented in the U.S. But these numbers are largely acknowledged as a very rough, possibly even misleading estimate of the problem, given the wide gaps in testing capacity across different countries and even within a country.
On the political right, many have taken to fostering conspiracy theories about these deaths. You don’t have to go far on social media to see people accusing doctors and health officials of fudging the numbers higher to make President Trump look bad or to (somehow) profit off the tragedy. Other conservative voices like the disgraced sex pest Bill O’Reilly are less paranoid but similarly dismissive, arguing that many of those who died “were on their last legs anyway.”
It’s true that older people and those with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of serious complications and death from covid-19. But the same can be said for almost every other leading cause of death, whether it’s cancer, heart attack, or diabetes. And just as living is hardly a simple affair, so too is dying. Sometimes you can point to a single factor that kills a person, but often it’s a mix of ailments, with a viral infection like covid-19 being the final shove.
The key point here is that epidemiologists and others who try to estimate how many people die from any given cause per year know the above very well. The flu, for instance, doesn’t usually kill in isolation either—it too disproportionately kills the elderly and otherwise already sick. Yet many of the same people who are now trying to downplay covid-19 deaths also argued that its early death toll wasn’t coming anywhere close to the typical seasonal flu’s annual tally (an argument meant to push back against the idea of doing anything too serious to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus).
That said, we’re much better at estimating how many deaths in the U.S. are flu-related because the influenza virus is a known entity. We have a decent sense of how many people are infected with the flu every year, how many people go to the doctor or are hospitalized, and how many people it helps kill, thanks to a well-established nationwide surveillance system. But that isn’t true for covid-19.
There’s steady evidence indicating that covid-19 cases nearly everywhere in the world are being undercounted. That’s partly because testing remains so haphazard and has inherent limitations. The most common type of covid-19 test right now, for instance, can only confirm an active infection, not whether you had a previous case (newer antibody tests can address that problem but have their own flaws). It’s also because the virus infects a still-unknown percentage of people without making them feel sick at all.
Many more people have had or will catch the coronavirus than any current tracking will ever indicate. These hidden cases are almost certainly less deadly on average than the known cases that wind up in hospitals, so it’s likely that the current documented fatality rate of covid-19 (over 5 percent worldwide) is an overestimate. But that doesn’t mean more people aren’t dying from covid-19 than are being reported.
In areas of China and Italy hit hard by the coronavirus, news reports have suggested a wide gulf between the official number of covid-19-related deaths in a town and what residents are seeing for themselves. In the U.S., there are still regions where testing is limited and people who may have died from covid-19 in their homes are never tested, including New York City. And there’s the simple harsh reality that we’re probably still in the very beginning of this pandemic.
Even if outbreaks start to peter out in the U.S. and elsewhere, there’s the risk that loosening our restrictions on distancing will fuel new ones. And even if the summer heat in the U.S. makes it harder for the virus to spread here, as some experts hope, a second wave in the fall and winter could certainly happen, much as it did for the last pandemic (a strain of flu) in 2009.
All of these variables will affect the final death toll from covid-19, as will how countries continue to respond to the crisis. Ironically, the steps we take to prevent new cases and deaths may be the very thing that makes people doubt they were necessary.
In late March, the White House and U.S. public health officials announced that they projected 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the country by the pandemic’s end, provided everything was done to slow its spread. On Thursday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that newer modeling data has suggested the U.S. death toll may end up closer to 60,000, so long as we keep mitigating the outbreak. Almost immediately, some people chose to take it as evidence that mitigation efforts aren’t necessary and that the initial warnings about the virus were overblown—ignoring, again, that the reason for the downward revision in projected deaths is the success of social distancing.
There are still a lot of things we don’t know about the coronavirus, and many of the things we think we know are going to keep changing. But here’s something to remember.
By the end of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that about 19,000 people were confirmed to have died from the virus. By 2013, severalstudies estimated that the true death toll was at least 10 times higher and even higher still when you took into account other causes of death indirectly worsened by the flu, like heart attacks. Knowing how deadly covid-19 will be could very well take that long to nail down too.
Another article of interest:
New York City’s covid-19 death toll is likely higher than reported, due to the fact that the…Read more
NOVA YORK – O coronavírus deu origem a uma enxurrada de teorias da conspiração, desinformação e propaganda, minando as autoridades de saúde e corroendo a confiança do público de maneiras que podem prolongar a pandemia e até mesmo se estender para além dela.
Alegações de que o novo coronavírus seria uma arma biológica estrangeira, uma invenção partidária ou parte de um projeto de reengenharia social substituíram um vírus sem razão nem propósito por vilões mais familiares e compreensíveis. Cada alegação parece dar a essa tragédia sem sentido algum grau de significado, por mais sombrio que seja.
Rumores de curas secretas – beber alvejante diluído, desligar os aparelhos eletrônicos, comer banana – dão uma esperança de proteção contra uma ameaça da qual nem mesmo os líderes mundiais estão escapando.
A crença de que alguém teve acesso ao conhecimento proibido proporciona uma sensação de certeza e controle em meio a uma crise que virou o mundo de cabeça para baixo. E compartilhar esse “conhecimento” pode dar às pessoas algo difícil de encontrar depois de semanas de isolamento e morte: a sensação de que se está fazendo alguma coisa.
“Aí estão todos os ingredientes que empurram as pessoas para as teorias da conspiração”, disse Karen Douglas, psicóloga social que estuda a crença em conspirações na Universidade de Kent, na Grã-Bretanha.
Rumores e afirmações flagrantemente estapafúrdias são disseminados por pessoas comuns cujas faculdades críticas simplesmente se viram esmagadas sob sentimentos de confusão e desamparo, dizem os psicólogos.
Mas muitas alegações falsas também vêm sendo promovidas por governos que tentam esconder seus fracassos, líderes partidários em busca de benefícios políticos, golpistas em geral e, nos Estados Unidos, por um presidente que insiste em curas não comprovadas e dispara falsidades que procuram eximi-lo de qualquer culpa.
Todas as teorias da conspiração carregam uma mensagem em comum: o único jeito de se proteger é saber as verdades secretas que “eles” não querem que você ouça.
O sentimento de segurança e controle proporcionado por esses rumores pode ser ilusório, mas os danos à confiança do público são bem reais.
As teorias conspiratórias estão levando as pessoas a consumir remédios caseiros que se revelaram letais e a desrespeitar as orientações de distanciamento social. E estão sabotando as ações coletivas, como ficar em casa ou usar máscaras, atitudes necessárias para conter um vírus que já matou mais de 79 mil pessoas.
“Já enfrentamos pandemias antes desta”, disse Graham Brookie, que dirige o Laboratório de Pesquisa Forense Digital do Atlantic Council. “Mas nunca enfrentamos uma pandemia num momento em que as pessoas estivessem tão conectadas e tivessem tanto acesso a informações quanto agora.”
Esse crescente ecossistema de desinformação e desconfiança pública obrigou a Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS) a ligar o alerta para uma “infodemia”. “Estamos assistindo a uma verdadeira inundação”, disse Brookie. “A ansiedade é viral, e todos estamos nos sentindo mais ansiosos que nunca.”
O fascínio do ‘conhecimento secreto’
“As conspirações atraem as pessoas porque prometem satisfazer certos motivos psicológicos que são importantes para elas”, disse Douglas. Os principais deles: o domínio sobre os fatos, a autonomia sobre o bem-estar e a sensação de controle.
Quando a verdade não atende a essas necessidades, nós humanos temos uma capacidade incrível de inventar histórias que atenderão, mesmo que uma parte de nós saiba que as histórias são falsas. Um estudo recente revelou que as pessoas são significativamente mais propensas a compartilhar informações falsas sobre o coronavírus do que imaginam.
“A magnitude da desinformação que se espalhou com a pandemia da covid-19 está sobrecarregando nossa equipe”, escreveu no Twitter o Snopes, um site de verificação de fatos. “Estamos vendo que milhares de pessoas, na ânsia de encontrar algum conforto, acabam piorando as coisas ao compartilhar informações falsas (e, às vezes, perigosas).”
Vastamente compartilhadas, postagens de Instagram alegaram, falsamente, que o coronavírus fora planejado por Bill Gates em benefício de empresas farmacêuticas. No Alabama, postagens de Facebook afirmaram, falsamente, que poderes obscuros haviam ordenado que doentes fossem secretamente enviados de helicóptero para o Estado. Na América Latina, proliferaram rumores igualmente infundados de que o vírus fora projetado para espalhar o HIV. No Irã, vozes pró-governo retrataram a doença como uma trama ocidental.
Se as alegações parecerem sigilosas, melhor ainda
A crença de que temos acesso a informações secretas pode nos dar a sensação de que temos uma vantagem, de que, de alguma forma, estamos mais seguros. “Quem acredita em teorias da conspiração acha que tem um poder, conferido pelo conhecimento, que as outras pessoas não têm”, disse Douglas.
A mídia italiana repercutiu um vídeo postado por um italiano que morava em Tóquio, no qual ele dizia que o coronavírus era tratável, mas que as autoridades italianas estavam “escondendo a verdade”.
Outros vídeos, muito populares no YouTube, afirmam que toda a pandemia é uma ficção encenada para controlar a população.
As teorias da conspiração também podem fazer as pessoas se sentirem menos sozinhas. Poucas coisas estreitam mais os laços entre “nós” do que combater “eles”, especialmente quando “eles” são estrangeiros e minorias, frequentes bodes expiatórios de boatos sobre o coronavírus e muitas outras coisas no passado.
Mas qualquer conforto que essas teorias proporcionem terá vida curta. Com o tempo, segundo pesquisas, o intercâmbio de conspirações não apenas fracassa em satisfazer nossas necessidades psicológicas, disse Douglas, como também tende a agravar sentimentos de medo e desamparo.
E isso pode nos levar a procurar explicações ainda mais extremas, como viciados em busca de doses cada vez mais fortes.
Governos vêm uma oportunidade na confusão
Os conspiradores e questionadores agora têm apoio dos governos. Antecipando a repercussão política da crise, líderes governamentais agiram rapidamente para se eximirem da culpa, espalhando suas próprias mentiras.
Uma importante autoridade chinesa disse que o vírus foi introduzido na China por membros do Exército dos Estados Unidos, uma acusação que teve permissão para se disseminar nas mídias sociais rigidamente controladas da China.
Na Venezuela, o presidente Nicolás Maduro sugeriu que o vírus era uma arma biológica americana cujo alvo seria a China. No Irã, as autoridades o chamaram de conspiração para acabar com o processo eleitoral no país. E agências de notícias que apoiam o governo russo, algumas com filiais na Europa ocidental, ventilaram alegações de que os Estados Unidos projetaram o vírus para minar a economia chinesa.
Nas antigas repúblicas soviéticas do Turcomenistão e Tadjiquistão, líderes recomendaram tratamentos falsos e defenderam a ideia de que os cidadãos deveriam continuar trabalhando.
Mas as autoridades tampouco deixaram de espalhar boatos em nações mais democráticas, particularmente naquelas em que a desconfiança em relação à autoridade abriu espaço para a ascensão de fortes movimentos populistas.
Matteo Salvini, líder do partido anti-imigração Liga Norte, na Itália, escreveu no Twitter que a China havia criado um “supervírus de pulmão” a partir de “morcegos e ratos”.
E o presidente do Brasil, Jair Bolsonaro, repetidas vezes propagandeou tratamentos não comprovados e insinuou que o coronavírus seria menos perigoso do que dizem os especialistas. Facebook, Twitter e YouTube tomaram a extraordinária decisão de remover suas postagens.
O presidente Donald Trump também insistiu repetidamente no uso de medicamentos não comprovados, apesar das advertências dos cientistas e de pelo menos uma overdose fatal, a qual vitimou um homem cuja esposa disse que ele havia tomado o remédio por sugestão de Trump.
Trump acusou seus supostos inimigos de tentar “inflamar” a “situação” do coronavírus para prejudicá-lo. Quando começaram a faltar equipamentos de proteção individual nos hospitais de Nova York, ele insinuou que os profissionais de saúde estavam roubando as máscaras. Seus aliados foram ainda mais longe.
O senador Tom Cotton, republicano do Arkansas, e outros sugeriram que o vírus foi produzido por um laboratório de armas chinês. Alguns aliados da mídia alegaram que os inimigos de Trump exageraram o número de mortos.
Uma crise paralela
“Essa supressão de informações é perigosa – muito, muito perigosa”, disse Brookie, referindo-se aos esforços chineses e americanos para minimizar a ameaça do surto.
A supressão de informações alimentou não apenas conspirações específicas, mas também uma sensação mais generalizada de que as fontes e dados oficiais não são confiáveis, bem como a ideia cada vez mais disseminada de que as pessoas devem buscar a verdade por conta própria.
A cacofonia dos epidemiologistas de sofá, que costumam chamar a atenção com afirmações sensacionalistas, muitas vezes encobre a fala de especialistas legítimos, cujas respostas raramente são muito sintéticas ou tranquilizadoras.
Eles prometem curas fáceis, como evitar os aparelhos eletrônicos ou até mesmo comer bananas, e dizem que o transtorno do isolamento social é desnecessário. Alguns chegam a vender tratamentos enganosos que eles próprios inventaram.
“As teorias da conspiração do campo da medicina têm o poder de aumentar a desconfiança nas autoridades médicas, o que pode afetar a disposição das pessoas a se protegerem”, escreveram Daniel Jolley e Pia Lamberty, pesquisadores de psicologia, em um artigo recente.
Demonstrou-se que tais alegações deixam as pessoas menos propensas a tomar vacinas ou antibióticos e mais propensas a procurar aconselhamento médico junto a amigos e familiares, e não profissionais de saúde.
A crença em uma conspiração também tende a aumentar a crença nas outras. As consequências, alertam os especialistas, podem não apenas piorar a pandemia, mas também se estender para além dela. / TRADUÇÃO DE RENATO PRELORENTZOU
The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic.
Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark.
Rumors of secret cures — diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.
The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.
“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.
Rumors and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.
But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflectingfalsehoods.
The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.
The feelings of security and control offered by such rumors may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.
It has led people to consume fatal home remedies and flout social distancing guidance. And it is disrupting the sweeping collective actions, like staying at home or wearing masks, needed to contain a virus that has already killed more than 79,000 people.
“We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.”
This growing ecosystem of misinformation and public distrust has led the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic.”
“You see the space being flooded,” Mr. Brookie said, adding, “The anxiety is viral, and we’re all just feeling that at scale.”
The Allure of ‘Secret Knowledge’
“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.
If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.
“The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team,” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter. “We’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation.”
Widely shared, Instagram posts falsely suggested that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. In Alabama, Facebook posts falsely claimed that shadowy powers had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state. In Latin America, equally baseless rumors have proliferated that the virus was engineered to spread H.I.V. In Iran, pro-government voices portray the disease as a Western plot.
If the claims are seen as taboo, all the better.
The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said.
Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo in which he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth.”
Other videos, popular on YouTube, claim that the entire pandemic is a fiction staged to control the population.
Still others say that the disease is real, but its cause isn’t a virus — it’s 5G cellular networks.
One YouTube video pushing this falsehood, and implying that social distancing measures could be ignored, has received 1.9 million views. In Britain, there has been a rash of attacks on cellular towers.
Conspiracy theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of “us” like rallying against “them,” especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumors and much else before now.
But whatever comfort that affords is short-lived.
Over time, research finds, trading in conspiracies not only fails to satisfy our psychological needs, Dr. Douglas said, but also tends to worsen feelings of fear or helplessness.
And that can lead us to seek out still more extreme explanations, like addicts looking for bigger and bigger hits.
Governments Find Opportunity in Confusion
The homegrown conspiracists and doubters are finding themselves joined by governments. Anticipating political backlash from the crisis, government leaders have moved quickly to shunt the blame by trafficking in false claims of their own.
A senior Chinese official pushed claims that the virus was introduced to China by members of the United States Army, an accusation that was allowed to flourish on China’s tightly controlled social media.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.
In the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaders praised bogus treatments and argued that citizens should continue working.
But officials have hardly refrained from the rumor mongering in more democratic nations, particularly those where distrust of authority has given rise to strong populist movements.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League Party, wrote on Twitter that China had devised a “lung supervirus” from “bats and rats.”
And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has repeatedly promoted unproven coronavirus treatments, and implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all took the extraordinary step of removing the posts.
President Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists and despite at least one fatal overdose of a man whose wife said he had taken a drug at Mr. Trump’s suggestion.
Mr. Trump has accused perceived enemies of seeking to “inflame” the coronavirus “situation” to hurt him. When supplies of personal protective equipment fell short at New York hospitals, he implied that health workers might be stealing masks.
His allies have gone further.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and others have suggested that the virus was produced by a Chinese weapons lab. Some media allies have claimed that the death toll has been inflated by Mr. Trump’s enemies.
A Parallel Crisis
“This kind of information suppression is dangerous — really, really dangerous,” Mr. Brookie said, referring to Chinese and American efforts to play down the threat of the outbreak.
It has nourished not just individual conspiracies but a wider sense that official sources and data cannot be trusted, and a growing belief that people must find the truth on their own.
A cacophony arising from armchair epidemiologists who often win attention through sensational claims is at times crowding out legitimate experts whose answers are rarely as tidy or emotionally reassuring.
They promise easy cures, like avoiding telecommunications or even eating bananas. They wave off the burdens of social isolation as unnecessary. Some sell sham treatments of their own.
“Medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves,” Daniel Jolley and Pia Lamberty, scholars of psychology, wrote in a recent article.
Such claims have been shown to make people less likely to take vaccines or antibiotics, and more likely to seek medical advice from friends and family instead of from doctors.
Belief in one conspiracy also tends to increase belief in others. The consequences, experts warn, could not only worsen the pandemic, but outlive it.
Medical conspiracies have been a growing problem for years. So has distrust of authority, a major driver of the world’s slide into fringe populism. Now, as the world enters an economic crisis with little modern precedent, that may deepen.
The wave of coronavirus conspiracies, Dr. Jolley and Dr. Lamberty wrote, “has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.”